Berkeley author weaves a tale of Oakland history in latest novel
By Lou Fancher
Leave it to an artist to spin a city's lost stories and a tale of two young people troubled by deportation, incarceration, street violence and a dearth of justice into a story of hope, change and dignity.
Such are the crosscurrents -- migratory, turbulent, evocative -- flowing through writer Summer Brenner's place-based novels for young readers: "Ivy, Homeless in San Francisco;" "Richmond Tales, Lost Secrets of the Iron Triangle" and her new book, "Oakland Tales, Lost Secrets of the Town."
In her Berkeley home, Brenner recalls the book that most influenced her decision to write about history through the aperture of fiction.
"A book that influenced me was 'Little Women,' " Brenner says. "You learn about a family affected by the Civil War -- a war that was most potent for Americans because it was fought on American soil."
Reflecting on Louisa May Alcott's classic novel, Brenner says she writes to entertain, inform, inspire and "give kids a book they might like." If there's a mission -- and there are several -- there's also a healthy respect for plot, adventure, compelling characters and a forceful, relevant, good read.
"It's all told through the emotions of two characters who have negative experiences. Even someone without their distractions can learn and develop empathy," Brenner says.
Brenner's empathy for others was sparked as a child, in Atlanta, Georgia, where she would duck to the floor of her family's car when traveling through poverty-stricken parts of town.
"I couldn't reconcile having a car when people lived in shacks," she says. The fire that has activated her efforts to lessen the divide between "the haves and the have nots" -- she's been both -- remains undiminished.
Picking up threads of "Richmond Tales," characters in the Oakland novel reconnect but face more mature challenges. Ernesto is from East Oakland and his parents have been deported. Jada is from the other side of town and has a father in prison and a mother who works hard to hold the family together. Together, they time travel with an elderly man, Misty Horn, to visit places like Lake Merritt and Peralta Hacienda.
"I'm embarrassed to admit it, but I'd never seen the Peralta Hacienda," Brenner says. "It's marvelous and shouldn't be missed."
Bullfighting, the intricacies of child labor laws, newspapers published by suffragettes and other surprising gems popped up during her extensive research.
"I use a parallel process to develop these books," Brenner says.
One part of her work is constructing characters and a narrative invigorated with action and suspense. The other part is a scattershot, all-out assault on investigation. She visits archives, museums and communities -- takes walking tours and conducts interviews while filling countless notebooks.
"It's intense," Brenner admits. Also intense was compiling the book's impressive 24-page appendix. At nearly 30,000 words, it's like a small book unto itself. With condensed facts about the Black Panther Party, the arts community near the Oakland Estuary called Jingletown, the Oakland Oaks minor league baseball team and more, it's little wonder the book is included in the Oakland Unified School District's Common Core curriculum.
Teacher Janet Volkmann's eighth-grade English students at Montera Middle School are using the appendix to learn Oakland's history. She says the plot structure engages the students and they like the protagonists. Volkmann appreciates learning about the people who made Oakland and sharing it with students positioned "to continue making it what we want Oakland to become."
Like its predecessor, "Richmond Tales," which was made into a play by the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts in 2010, Brenner's new book is inspiring theatrical adaptations.
"I chose it as the text for a collaboration with Word for Word theater," says Jana Maiuri, a sixth-grade English teacher at Edna Brewer Middle School in Oakland. "The students are adapting it into a performance, designing costumes, blocking and set design as well as discussing the importance of the story and how to condense it into a script."
Students aren't the only readers benefiting from "Oakland Tales." Sixth-grade teacher Brian Cabrera has taught at East Oakland Leadership Academy for eight years. Assigning the book for summer reading, he learned about the California Hotel.
"I've always thought of it as a seedy building in West Oakland," he wrote in an email. Instead he discovered it was a cultural institution and venue for jazz music. The historic landmark hotel, built in the 1920s, was recently rehabilitated as a low-income residential facility.
Cabrera said reading a book with familiar settings has caused excitement. Several students said their parents were reading the book and asked for extra copies. His East Oakland students especially appreciated the "gritty reality of the book, which is a part of their daily lives," he said.
Ultimately, Brenner says "any place has potential" and would like other communities to weave their histories through the template she's created. "I want kids to know that places change," Brenner says. "I want them to know that Oakland is a place of hope."