“Book Review: The Names of All the Flowers”
Reviewed by Jaylynn Korrell
A touching tribute to a beloved brother and to everyone who has been lost to the streets
Melissa Valentine’s debut memoir is deeply personal, yet many Black Americans will find the story painstakingly familiar. Her brother Junior, who was senselessly killed by gun violence, is the hero of this story. Together, she and Junior navigate through Oakland, gentrification, Blackness, and growing up in the mindfuck that is America. The feelings evoked through this story will linger well after you’ve finished.
The Names of All the Flowers takes place in Oakland, California in the 1990s. Valentine, a product of a white Quaker man and Black woman from the deep south, is closest in age and emotion to her brother Junior, who gravitates toward the streets after suffering through violent bullying in school. It starts with small things, like stealing snacks from a friend’s house as Melissa tags along. Then, it grows, and she is left behind to wonder just what it is that has taken hold of her brother.
It doesn’t take her long to figure it out. As Junior comes to his own conclusions about what will get him respect and power in his area, his sister Melissa struggles with the feeling that the real Junior is slipping away. As each year passes, glimpses of Junior become few and far between as the streets become his home.
“Remembering is not just about honoring our trauma, it is about honoring life and speaking truth to injustice. Death should not be such a normal part of our lives. Burying young people should not be so normal. And yet, we all touch it.”
The scenes of Valentine’s youth with her brother are both hopeful and sentimental. Her parents, who are struggling in their own way, feel helpless in protecting Junior, though they try in numerous ways to come up with a solution.
All the while, her brother Junior, as well as many other boys in the neighborhood are lured by this almost invisible villain: the streets; a poisonous mixture of crime, bad influences, drugs, cops, bullies, and poverty are ever present in The Names of All the Flowers, and they act as a powerful influence on kids who are left to their own devices.
“Surviving the power and lure of the street all around you is the exception, not the rule.”
Valentine’s intimate writing will shut down any naysayer willing to categorize someone like this under the unfortunate word “criminal,” and move on. For those who need reminding, she puts a vivid face to a statistic. And with this book, Valentine gives us a complete look: the days before all this, the joyous and heartbreaking moments leading up to it, and the aftermath that each family has to live with for the rest of their time. When told through the eyes of someone who loved him most, Junior feels just like our brother, our son, our friend, and any person trying to find his way.
Publisher: Feminist Press
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