Title: Stealing: Life in America
Author: Michelle Cacho-Negrete
Publisher: Adelaide Books
I received a copy of Stealing: Life in America from Adelaide Books in return for an honest review. Thank you!
Winter in Maine is not just a season but a location, sign-posted in layers of cold-white drifts and gritty ice. – “Winter” – p. 193
Michelle Cacho-Negrete’s book of essays titled Stealing: Life in America is more than just the relating of facts about being poor in Brooklyn, of Russian Jewish ancestry, and how those combine to give a sense of identity.
Those are the bare bone facts. These essays, though, carry power. Cacho-Negrete’s power comes from her honesty and her eloquence. Her words touch exposed nerves, and reveal the wounds which come from the poverty our country refuses to acknowledge.
Her first essay, “Stealing,” begins this way, “The day I decided to steal food I instituted three simple rules: Steal only essentials, only from big chains, never brag.”
These are not the words of someone who feels entitled to what the world hasn’t given them. These are the words of a truly desperate single mother trying to make it four months until her teaching job begins. This stings, and it should. This is, we are told, avoidable if we only follow the rules and do all that’s expected of us to rise in the world.
Except …. there’s always an except in these stories. Except Cacho-Negrete did what she was supposed to do. She worked hard, got her education, married, and had children. The promise of education is that it will lift us out of our poverty and put us directly into the arms of the middle class where we will be cradled until we die.
Stealing: Life in America isn’t necessarily an indictment of a part of society we’d rather not acknowledge. It’s also not the story of “I pulled myself up by my bootstraps, you can too.” This book is an intimate look at how hard that climb is, especially if the climb starts in the Brooklyn ghetto of the 1940s and 50s.
From Brooklyn, the reader goes on a trip in search of relatives near and far. The grandfather and aunt, also in Brooklyn, her mother refuses to talk to, giving no reason to her curious daughter. In “Country of the Past”, in Finland, near the Russian border with her husband, she wonders about her Russian ancestors, and if crossing the border illegally will give her a connection at all. Would she somehow feel connected to the part of her heritage which was held in contempt always?
Physical appearance plays a part in identity. And “Hair” is about having tightly curled blonde locks in a time when having straight hair was a societal requirement in being accepted. It’s a discussion of where all the feminine outliers go to bring their unruly hair under control, and how women will do what needs to be done to fit in better. An experience not unlike what women continue to go through in 2019.
“Rejection” tells the experience of the person we all know and can’t understand. The one who gets under our skin and stays there despite our best efforts. She writes, “But I am sensitive, and always have been, to the subtle clues people put out. (p. 68)” Me too sister. And the ones we are most sensitive to are the people who just don’t like us for no good reason we can see. We weren’t given a chance to piss them off, they just seem to arrive in our lives that way. And through her neighbor’s heartache, Cacho-Negrete is kindness itself. Only to be spurned again. Telling us we’re overreacting in such cases doesn’t mean a thing. We know something’s going on, even if we don’t know what. And that’s what drives us nuts. There is no explanation for their behavior.
Michelle Cacho-Negrete’s essays gather her readers around in a warm circle while she tells stories of doing the best we can in horrible situations in which the answer is clear, but not to those who can make a change. She writes of meeting women fortunate enough to have never worried about how they spend their money. And she writes of the part of her, while now financially comfortable, who can only wonder why someone needs more than one expensive hand bag or more than two designer sweaters. Because she knows the pain of complete lack, Cacho-Negrete lives in the world of thrift stores and only buying what she absolutely needs. It is unfathomable to her to buy more.
Her journey moves to Brooklyn to Maine, where she and her second husband live a good, comfortable life. But because life is life, and nothing is ever always easy, her husband winds up in the hospital with an idiopathic condition. (The irony that the word for an unknown illness has the same first letters as idiot is not lost on me.)
Here, in “Days and Days and Days Inbetween” is the story of a different kind of pain and anxiety, told with compassion. But the longing for a diagnosis, an answer to “will he be all right” is just beneath the surface. How can it not be? In the end, yes he is all right.
While many of Michelle Cacho-Negrete’s essays resonated on a deeply emotional level with me, this did not take away from being enraptured by her story-telling ability. Eloquent, warm, matter-of-fact, and the near perfect telling of a life of adventure. Struggles overcome, an understanding of how far she’d moved from those fire escapes in Brooklyn, and a modest bit of triumphalism are what make Stealing: Life in America worth reading.