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‘Three Girls from Bronzeville’ is a story about growing up on Chicago’s South Side — and so much more

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“Three Girls from Bronzeville,” Dawn Turner’s first work of nonfiction, uses the trope of little Black girls inventing and reinventing themselves at certain points in history to help define the era and the country. Through the stories of three generations of women, Turner has given us a tutorial of urban decay, White privilege, poor city planning and the influence of fads and digital advances on Black urban teenagers.

For this memoir, Turner, former columnist for the Chicago Tribune and author of two novels, has delved into her own youth and the history and path of her childhood posse, her “ride-or-die” girls, from third grade to the present. In the girls’ journeys there are spirals and twirls, from one’s fight to reenter her dream college to another’s struggle to make it home to her own bed at night. And with all the girls, there is the promise of achievement and redemption.

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Turner is a natural born storyteller and a sponge for knowledge, trivia, memories, gossip and urban folk lore (many Black women readers may be particularly shocked at the origins of a common anatomical nickname). She is a keen observer with a journalist’s curiosity and the wisdom to know that the panorama becomes clearer the narrower the focus.

Her focus here is that historically Black neighborhood, a bit of land on Chicago’s South Side known as Bronzeville, and three Brown girls – the author, her sister, Kim Turner, and best friend Debra Trice – who were shaped by this milieu while growing up in the 1970s.

With each exciting or mundane story from the girls’ upbringings, Turner makes the reader feel that he or she is the only observer in the world at that spot in Bronzeville. Turner’s neighborhood was also where many members of the Great Migration – including her grandmother – settled and began a new life. “Granny” may have only been able to collect scarred crystal knick-knacks from the high-end store where she cleaned. Her granddaughter, however, could easily afford those items with money she earned from her own writing skills and career.

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Turner allows the reader to see the next page in that truly American story of migrating and reinvention, through the eyes and adventures of her and her childhood friends. Turner’s tone is true whether she’s describing the girls’ quotidian race to a special spot on a ledge above Bronzeville, in their mid-range building seemingly planted between the projects and a fancy, new apartment complex, or the heart-racing discovery of what her grandmother calls “that nasty photograph” – a polaroid of a naked Black woman young Dawn finds in the laundry room. She may have begun as an awkward nerd, stumbling through life, afraid to question any rules, but she has clearly grown into a powerful speaker of truth. As narrator of this volume, Turner has learned a thing or six about perspective and forgiveness, acceptance and humility.

And throughout, it is the women, almost all Black or Brown, who define the girls’ divergent paths, especially for the teller of these tales, Dawn, the journalist, the married one, the mother hen of the household, the A-student.

Her ever-present mother, whose name appears only once in this book, has a “straight, no chaser” approach to life, to honesty, to relationships, to men, to child-rearing; she’s a steady beacon of encouragement and male-bashing, particularly of her ex-husband, Dawn and Kim’s father. Has any woman in history ever been so disappointed in the male of the species?

And Mrs. Turner has an adage or admonition for every situation. She even has a couple about “asses” alone: “Come on, now. Let’s not ass-drag,” she says when Dawn is getting sentimental about moving from one apartment to another. And when Mrs. Turner notices that a teenaged Kim is starting to get curvy,” she clucks: “Girl, you need to get some law and order about your ass.”

She cautions sensibly, “Don’t break up my rest to tell me somebody has died. If they’re dead now, they’ll still be dead in the morning.” Yet, she finally holds her caustic tongue at the news that her ex-husband has heart disease.

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The men here are nearly as fascinating as the women. Her father, who her mother left for his drinking and violence, is that figure Turner has learned not to count on yet yearns for all the same. Acidic scenes surrounding the girls include Dawn bursting in on her quarreling parents just in time to see her father choking her mother. This moment leads to questions that hang over her most of her life, questions that only her father can answer.

At times, the lives and personalities of the adults threaten to eclipse the girls’ tale. Still, this is an exceptional work, a memoir told with honesty, grit and a sly wit that continually takes readers to unexpected places. It makes one hope that Turner might return to this memoir in 10 or 20 years for a second volume. I’m hooked on these women.

Tina McElroy Ansa, the author of five novels, co-edited the essay collection ”Meeting at the Table: African-American Women Write on Race, Culture and Community” (DownSouth Press, 2020).

Three Girls from Bronzeville

A Uniquely American Memoir of Race, Fate, and Sisterhood

By Dawn Turner

Simon & Schuster. 321 pp. $26.99

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