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The Narrows: A Novel

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“Petry is the writer we have been waiting for; hers are the stories we need to fully illuminate the questions of our moment, while also offering a page-turning good time. Ann Petry, the woman, had it all, and so does her insightful, prescient and unputdownable prose.” — Tayari Jones, New York Times Book Review

From author of the bestselling novel The Street, a “masterpiece of social realism” (Wall Street Journal) about a tragic love affair, and a powerful look into how class, race, and love intersected in midcentury America.

With a new introduction by Kaitlyn Greenidge, author of Libertie.

The Narrows deftly explores what it means to have an interior life under the unrelenting gaze of is a master class in using descriptions of place and space to explore the realities of race, gender, class and psychology.”—Kaitlyn Greenidge, from her introduction

It’s Saturday, past midnight, and thick fog rolls in from the river like smoke. Link Williams is standing on the dock when he hears quick footsteps approaching, and the gasp of a woman too terrified to scream. After chasing off her pursuer, he takes the woman to a nearby bar to calm her nerves, and as they enter, it’s as if the oxygen has left the room: they, and the other patrons, see in the dim light that he’s Black and she’s white.

Link is a brilliant Dartmouth graduate, former athlete and soldier who, because of the lack of opportunities available to him, tends bar; Camilo is a wealthy married woman dissatisfied with and bored of her life of privilege. Thrown together by a chance encounter, both Link and Camilo secretly cross the town’s racial divide, defying the social prejudices of their times.

In this stunning and heartbreaking story, Petry illuminates the harsh realities of race and class through two doomed lovers. This profound, necessary novel stakes Petry’s place as an indelible writer of American literature.

“I’ve recently had my brain re-wired by Ann Petry, and it’s that exhilarating feeling of falling in love with one of your lifetime writers for the first time.” —Brandon Tyler

ISBN-13: 9780063259997

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Publication Date: 01-10-2023

Pages: 560

Product Dimensions: 5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.30(d)

Ann Petry was the acclaimed author of the adult novel The Street, a groundbreaking literary work about life in Harlem, which sold over a million copies. She also wrote several books for young readers, including Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad, the story of the courageous and heroic woman who struggled and fought for her people before and during the Civil War.

Read an Excerpt


• Abbie crunch began to walk slowly as she turned into Dumble Street, market basket over her arm, trying not to look at the river; because she knew that once she saw it with the sun shining on it she would begin to think about Link, to worry about Link, to remember Link as a little boy. A little boy? Yes, a little boy. Eight years old. Diving from the dock. Swimming in the river.

She could hear the lapping of the water against the piling close at hand; and faint, far off, borne inshore on the wind, the crying of the gulls, the hoot of a tugboat; and she could smell the old familiar dampness from the river. And so, as usual on a sunny morning, she could see herself and Frances Jackson standing on Dock Street, a pushcart at the curb half concealing them, so they were peering over mounds of potatoes and kale and bunches of carrots and countless round heads of cabbage. She was short and fat, no, plump. Frances was tall and thin and bony.

Frances was saying, "Look! Look over there!" and pointing, forcing her to look.

She remembered how she had resented that dark brown forefinger, long, supple, seemingly jointless, which directed her glance, commanding her to look, and she not wanting to look, but her eyes following the stretched-out arm and the commanding forefinger.

She saw Bill Hod standing on the dock, wearing dark trunks, short dark swimming trunks and nothing else. His chest, shoulders, arms, white by contrast with the trunks, shockingly naked because of the trunks. His straight black hair was wet, and he was running his hands through it, flattening it, making it smooth, sleek. She remembered too how she had thought, I have lost my mind, lost it, no control over it any more. Because she was genuinely surprised that his hair should lie so flat — she had somehow convinced herself that there would be horns on his head — something, anyway, that would show, would indicate — She closed her eyes. The sunlight was unbearable. She was accustomed to darkness, window shades always pulled down in the house, draperies drawn, no lights turned on at night because she preferred darkness.

Frances Jackson seemed all elbow that morning, tall, elbows everywhere. She poked at her, "Open your eyes. Abbie, Abbie, Abbie —"

Sunlight on the river, sunlight on Bill Hod, sunlight on her own face, or so she thought, hurting her eyes, hurting her face, so she kept her eyes closed. She heard Link's voice, a child's voice, light, high in pitch, excitement in his voice and something else — affection.

She opened her eyes and saw Link dive from the dock, dive down into the river. She wanted to stop him. It wasn't safe. He didn't know how to swim. She couldn't stand any more sudden shocks. He was so little. The river was so wide and so deep, so treacherous. Then he was swimming, going farther and farther away, his head like the head of a small dog, head held up out of the water, moving farther and farther away. She said, "No!"

Bill Hod yelled, "Hey — you — come on back —" Bass voice, arrogant, domineering voice, the tone of his voice, just the tone, was an insult, voice that she could never forget, could hear, even in her sleep —

The head, the small head kept moving away, always moving away, farther and farther out toward the middle of the river, growing smaller, like the head of a newborn puppy now. Then out of sight. No, still there, but still moving away.

Bill Hod shouted, wind carrying the voice back toward the pushcart, back toward Frances Jackson and Abigail Crunch, rage in the voice, "If I — have to — haul you — out of there — come back —"

Was that small head still there? Yes, coming back now, but so slowly. She thought he'd never — why didn't that man —

Then, finally, Bill Hod reached down and pulled Link up on the dock. Bill Hod slapped him across the face. She could hear the sound of the blow, slapped him again, again, said, "If you ever" — slap — "do that again" — slap — "I'll fix you" — slap — "for keeps" — slap.

No one had ever struck Link. Neither she nor the Major. She started to cross the street, thinking, By what right, that man, face of a hangman. Frances Jackson's hand held her back, strength in the bony thin hand, determination in the hand holding her there behind the pushcart, behind the potatoes and the cabbages and the kale.

Frances said, "Abbie — don't. You've lost the right to interfere. Link's been living in that saloon for three months — for three months. Abbie, listen to me —"

That afternoon when they went in The Last Chance to get Link, he ran and hid under the bar, crying, "I won't go back there. I won't go back there."

She could see herself and Frances Jackson down on their hands and knees, pleading with Link, trying to pull him out from under the bar in The Last Chance. And Bill Hod stood watching them, saying nothing, watching, his hands on his hips. His face? She couldn't look at his face. How then did she know that he was laughing inside, why was she so certain that he was thinking, The old maid undertaker and the widow are here in my saloon. She supposed it was the way he leaned against the bar watching them. He made her conscious of the ridiculous picture they must have made: a short plump woman and a tall thin one trying to pull an eight-year-old boy out from under a bar when they couldn't reach any part of him; down on their hands and knees, reaching, reaching, trying to grab anything — pants, legs, sneakers, shirt; and he kept scrambling back away from them.

It was Frances who gave the whole thing up as impossible. She stood up, brushed off her hands, said, "Mr. Hod, I want to talk to you."

Frances was in the habit of giving orders, in the habit of dealing with the bereaved and the sorrowful, with the hysterical and the frightened; and so she knew better than Abbie when to retreat and when to advance and could do either with dignity. But when Frances stood up she looked down at her skirt, surprised. Abbie knew why. There was no dirt, no dust on the dark skirt. The floor behind the bar in The Last Chance was dustfree, dirtfree.

Link was eight years old then. He was twenty-six now and he worked in The Last Chance. Behind the bar. Bill Hod had won — effortlessly, easily.

Whenever she turned into Dumble Street, she always asked herself the same question, If Link had been her own child instead of an adopted child, would she, could she, have forgotten about him for three months, three whole months?

Sometimes she tried to blame this street which, now, in the mellowness of an October morning, looked to be all sunlight and shadow — intricately patterned shadow from the young elm trees, denser shadow and a simpler pattern where the old maple stood near the end of the block; shadow softening the harsh outlines of the brick buildings, concealing the bleakness of the two-story frame houses; sunlight intensifying the yellowgreen of the elms, the redorange of the maple, adding a sheen to the soft gray of the dock. No, she thought, not this street. It was the fault of Abbie Crunch. If she hadn't said to herself, Murderer, murderer; if she hadn't been chief witness against herself, condemning herself to death, willing her own death, so that she forgot Link, forgot about him as though he had never existed, she wouldn't have lost him.

She hadn't meant to look at the river but she had glanced at the dock and so her eyes moved on to the river. She stood still looking at it. In the sunlight, the River Wye was the blue of bachelor buttons, of delphinium; small frothy waves, edged with white, kept appearing and disappearing on the blue surface — a sparkling blue river just at the foot of the street, a beautiful river.

Even the street was beautiful. It sloped gently down toward the river. But the signs on the buildings dispelled the illusion of beauty. The red neon sign in front of The Last Chance was a horrible color in the sunlight — Link already there at work. Then there were all the other signs: Room For Rent, Lady Tenant Wanted, Poro Method Used, Get Your Kool-Aid Free, Tenant Provide Own Heat, Rooms Dollar and Half A Night. Rooms. Rooms.

She could remember when Mrs. Sweeney changed the sign in her window from Room To Let to Rooms For White, explaining, apologetically, that so many of the colored stopped to ask about rooms that she couldn't get her work done for answering the bell. "It's just to save time," she had said, "my time and theirs."

Mrs. Sweeney's sign had long since been replaced by a much larger and very different sign: "Masters University — Church of Metaphysics and Spiritual Sciences — Revealing the Strange Secrets of the Unseen Forces of Life Time and Nature. Divine Blessings — Healings of Mind and Body. I Am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no man cometh unto the Father, but by Me. Hear the Voice of the Master: Dr. H. H. Franklin Longworth, F.M.B. Minister, Psychologist, Metaphysician. Everyone Is Welcome."

Yes, she thought, Dumble Street has changed. The signs tell the story of the change. It was now, despite its spurious early-morning beauty, a street so famous, or so infamous, that the people who lived in Monmouth rarely ever referred to it, or the streets near it, by name; it had become an area, a section, known variously as The Narrows, Eye of the Needle, The Bottom, Little Harlem, Dark Town, Niggertown — because Negroes had replaced those other earlier immigrants, the Irish, the Italians and the Poles.

Fortunately, the river hadn't changed. Nor had the big maple tree. But she, Abbie Crunch, had changed because for the last few years she had been calling the tree The Hangman just like everyone else who lived in The Narrows. It was, she supposed, inevitable. People talked about the tree as though it were a person: "The Hangman's losin' his leaves, winter's goin' to set in early"; "Spring's here, The Hangman's full of buds." When it was cold, bone-biting cold, wind blowing straight from the river, the sidewalks grown narrower, reduced almost to cowpaths because of the snow piled up at the sides, a coating of ice making walking hazardous, the great branches of the tree swayed back and forth, making a cracking sound. Then passers-by said: "Lissen. The Hangman's creakin'. Hear him?" or "The Hangman's talkin'. Hangman's groanin' in his sleep," and shivered as they moved away.

She had tried, years ago, to find out why the tree was called The Hangman and couldn't. There would always be something of the schoolteacher's tiresome insistence on accuracy left in her, so she had searched through all the books on horticulture in the Monmouth Library but she could not find any mention of a hangman's maple. She decided that some one may once have said that the big maple was the kind of tree a hangman would choose to swing his victim from — tall, straight, with mighty branches; that whoever heard this statement changed it when he repeated it and called the tree a hangman's maple; that, finally, some imaginative Negro, probably from South Carolina, gave the tree its name. These days she, too, called the maple The Hangman, as easily, and as inaccurately, as the rest of The Narrows.

This morning The Hangman was like a picture of a tree — a picture on a calendar, the orange-red of the leaves not really believable. Sometimes she wished she had not insisted on buying that old brick house which was Number Six Dumble Street. But not now. Who could regret the purchase of a fine old house when the tree that stood in its dooryard was like a great hymn sung by a choir of matched voices?

The Hangman had, of course, been the source of many small annoyances, and, possibly, the cause, though indirectly, of one major disaster. The neighborhood dogs were always in the yard, sniffing around the tree, lifting a leg, digging up the lawn with vigor afterwards. During the day lean cats napped in the dense shade made by its branches and at midnight carried on a yowling courtship. On warm summer nights, drunks sprawled under the tree, in a sleep that was more torpor than sleep. She kept a bucket filled with water on the back steps, and, early in the morning, fear making her heart beat faster, fear urging her back toward the house, she would approach the sleeping man, dump the pail of water over him, recoiling from the smell of him, the awful loosejointed look of him, even as she said, "Get out of here. Get out of here or I'll call a policeman —" There was always the shudder, the stumbling gait, the muttered curses in the thickened speech that came to mean drunkenness, and only drunkenness, as the man lurched to his feet. They always went toward The Last Chance, the saloon across the street, as though by instinct.

Yes, she thought, everything changes, and not always for the best, her mind moving away from the subject of intoxication as she had trained it to do. But her house had changed for the best. Number Six Dumble Street had a very definite air about it — an air of aristocracy. The brass knocker on the front door gleamed, the white paint on the sash of the smallpaned windows, and on the front door, was very white. In this early morning light, the brick of the house was not red but rose colored — the soft pinkish red found in old Persian carpets. The wrought iron railing on each side of the front steps was so intricately and delicately worked that it resembled filet crochet, incredible that a heavy metal like iron could be twisted and turned and bent until it looked like lace.

She gave a little jump, startled, because she heard footsteps close behind her. She turned to see who it was and a man passed her, walking briskly. A colored man. His skin was just a shade darker than her own. Yet he was dressed with a meticulousness one rarely ever saw these days — creased trousers, highly polished shoes, because the back of the shoes gleamed, a dark gray felt hat on his head, the shape perfect.

What could he have thought when he saw her standing still in the middle of the sidewalk? From the back, seen from the back, glanced at quickly from the side, how had she looked to him? Shabby? Old? Like the toothless old women who sat hunched over, mumbling to themselves, in the doorways, on the doorsteps of the houses in The Narrows? The curve of their backs, the dark wrinkled skins, the black glitter of their eyes, the long frowsy skirts always made her think of crones and witches, of necromancy.

Feeling embarrassed, she moved on, walking fast, feeling impelled to take a mental inventory of her appearance. The market basket? It was made by hand by Willow Smith, the old basket-maker. A lost art. Women these days carried brown paper shopping bags, impermanent, flimsy, often replaced. The string handles cut their fingers. She'd had this basket almost forty years. It was sturdy but light in weight; and it was as much a part of her Saturday morning shopping costume as the polished oxfords on her feet, and the lisle stockings on her legs. The shoes had been resoled many times, but the uppers were as good as new. She glanced at her hands — the beige-colored gloves were immaculate; true, they'd been darned, but she doubted that anyone would know it, certainly not a casual passer-by.

She wasn't bent over, she knew that. She had always prided herself on the erectness of her figure; and now, watching the brisk progress of the man walking ahead of her, she straightened up even more. She couldn't have looked too queer to him. The plain black wool coat had been brushed before she left the house as had the plain black felt hat — a hat chosen because it would never really go out of style and yet it would never attract attention. She wore it straight on her head, pulled down, but not so far down that it covered her hair — white silky hair. Proud of her hair. Two or three tendrils always managed to escape from the hairpins, and, shifting the market basket to the other arm, she reached up and patted the back of her head, still neat, as far as she could tell with gloves on.

What made me do that, she thought. I know how I look. But all my life I've been saying to myself, What will people think? And at seventy I wouldn't be apt to stop doing it. So a short briskwalking man passes me on the street at a moment when I am standing still and I immediately start checking my appearance. Possibly he didn't wonder about me. But he looked at me, sideways, quickly, and then away. He isn't much taller than I am, she thought, still watching him. But he weighs less. Not that I'm fat but I've got flesh on my bones — small bones — so I look plump.

To her very great surprise, this man, this welldressed little man, turned in at Number Six, walked up the steps, and lifted the brass knocker, letting it fall gently against the door, repeating the motion so that she heard a rat-tat-tat-tat, gentle, but insistent. That surprised her, too, for very few people knew how a knocker resounded through a house and thus she was always being startled by salesmen or itinerant peddlers who set up a great banging at her front door, enough to wake the dead.


Excerpted from "The Narrows"
by .
Copyright © 1953 Ann Petry.
Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.


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The Narrows