February 01, 2021

Kid Sterling

Written by Christine Welldon
Red Deer Press
432 pp.
Ages 10+
August 2020 

If Sterling Crawford had a soundtrack to his life, it would be ragtime and the blues. It would lift him up and mirror his lows, get him through the tough times and celebrate the highs. It would remind him of trains and rivers, work and family. And he would be known to the music world as Kid Sterling.

In the early 1900s, Sterling Crawford is just a ten-year-old boy living in New Orleans with his Momma and his seventeen-year-old brother Syl, shining shoes on Basin Street and dreaming of playing his horn for the King, Buddy Bolden.
...the notes from Buddy's cornet were cannonballs that shook Sterling's bones, the tone clear and pure, teasing and lusty, till he felt himself lifted up and away, a catfish on a hook. (pg. 19)
As much as Sterling wants to play music and learn how to write it, life is not as straightforward as he might wish. Even recognizing the threats and discriminatory limitations imposed on him by his black heritage, Sterling dreams of more, just as Syl does. But Syl who
has instructed Sterling to never reveal them to be brothers, whether to pass himself off as white or to simply protect Sterling, goes beyond playing drums to make a better life. He works for a local gangster, gambles, and involves himself in other nefarious activities, even stealing money that Sterling had been saving for a new horn. With a strained relationship, Sterling and Syl head to Plaquemine for a cousin's birthday celebration and a musical gig for Syl. But everything shatters when Syl is forced to protect them from assault by a white man. The two separate and only Sterling returns to New Orleans where he is eventually arrested for assault.

Being sent to Captain Jones's Colored Waifs Home for Boys, Sterling feels like it's the end of the road for him.
A distant bugle sounded the end of the day. He figured his whole life was just like that bugle–out of tune. All his young life, his mother had sung to him, called him in to supper, to chores, to his bedtime. As he waited for sleep, he conjured the sound of her rich voice, humming those bluesy tunes to wrap him in safety and love. But memories brought him no comfort. Tonight, he had only loneliness and sour notes to call him to slumber. (pg. 233)

Still, Sterling learns more about himself and about music, even how to "...make some harmony out of the sour" (pg. 287). And there is a lot of sourness that pervades Sterling's life. Bad things, like notes on the wind, keep finding their way to him. He makes the best choices he can given the circumstances. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don't. And sometimes it doesn't matter. In the end, it's still his story, and Christine Welldon tells it with authenticity and compassion.

Because Christine Welldon's background is as a non-fiction writer (e.g., Everyone Can Be a Changemaker, Reporter in Disguise, The Children of Africville, and Lifelines: The Lanier Phillips Story), you can be assured that Kid Sterling is a carefully and thoroughly researched book. Though Sterling himself is a fictionalized character, Buddy Bolden, Clarence Williams, Captain Jones and Armand Piron as well as others (Christine Welldon provides background on them at the conclusion of her book) were very real men who shaped Sterling's life and undoubtedly those of real individuals. But by embedding a fictionalized young African-American boy in a true representation of New Orleans at the beginning of the 20th century, Christine Welldon can build her story on him and his world without limitation. She can tell of the horrific racial discrimination from Sterling and his peers' perspectives, seeing how justice was served up based on the colour of skin. She can weave in the music of the day and how it was played and learned and disseminated. She can reveal how fear could dry up the music for Sterling, and how fear for self, family and friends impacted living.
If his life were like a music book of stories, Sterling felt as strong as the spine that bound and divided it down the center. One part was finished, its pages full. The rest contained empty notation lines, waiting to be filled. (pg. 406)
If Kid Sterling was a piece of music, it would be a hymn of pain and promise, hope and struggle. But that hymn should portend better, for Sterling and others whose lives were never given full voice. Let that new song stay true now and forever.

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