The first major text assigned to my English 215 students is Jennifer Morales’ Meet Me Halfway: Milwaukee Stories, a collection of character snapshots that wrestle with identity issues central to the city. This was one of the first works that prompted me to overhaul the syllabus I had been working on. As a longtime resident, the string of police shootings and violence in the city has been a persistent murmur for most of my life in Milwaukee. Watching the live streams from Sherman Park, sufficient explanations continued to evade me. What good is critical analysis to the residents of this neighborhood? I watched the “unrest” (the milquetoast term assigned by the local media) from behind my barricade of books, one eye on the march the other on Huizinga’s theories of play.
Once the exam was over, the syllabus was reworked to help work through the amoebic questions that remained. At the time, I had been helping out at People’s Bookstore which was (before it closed) showcasing Meet Me Halfway. A brief skimming determined that it would be a good book to start off the semester with: the narrative spoke through multiple voices, Milwaukee factored prominently in the relationships of the characters, and it was accessible to the point of seeming simple. A more thorough reading uncovered more disconcerting issues but nothing that would hinder a good discussion in class.
Despite starting the semester with a 200-page read in the first week, the class engaged in one of the best sessions I’ve had in 4 years of teaching. With one student starting off as discussion leader (a new tactic I’m trying out), the class began deliberating over the themes of gender and race that are foregrounded in Morales’ work. Through this discussion, deeper themes of fracturing and disruption bubbled up – it was everything I could do to jump in. I was stunned by the depth at which the class was willing to go. Many were unafraid to share personal experiences and identities as well as admit that the city that the author depicted was foreign to them.
Some of the themes the class brought up:
- Time and history
- Responsibility for “meeting the Other halfway”
- Ambiguity and control
- Subjunctive voice
It will be interesting to see how the class compares Meet Me Halfway to Gloria Naylor’s Women of Brewster Place. Many of the issues the class had with the former are glaring in the latter. Structurally, the works are almost identical. Framing, time shifts, and lapses into memory disrupt the narrative. Characters who provide the focus give way to peripheral figures that don’t appear to impact the arc at all. While it’s unfair to compare Meet Me Halfway to Naylor’s landmark book, I hope Women of Brewster Place will help continue today’s superb discussion.