Sleepaway School: Stories from a Boy's Life: A Memoir
Foreword by Kurt Vonnegut
Like his brother before him, Stringer was surrendered to foster care, shortly after birth, by his unwed and underemployed mother—a common practice for unmarried women in mid-century America. Less common was that she returned six years later to reclaim her children. Rather than leading to a happy ending, though, this is where Stringer's story begins. The clash of being poor and black in an affluent, largely white New York suburb begins to foment pain and rage which erupts, more often than not, when he is at school. One violent episode results in his expulsion from the sixth grade and his subsequent three-year stint at Hawthorne, the "sleepaway school" of the title.
What follows is an intensely personal, American journey: a universal story of childhood where childhood universals are absent. We experience how a child fashions his life out of the materials given to him, however threadbare. This is a "boy-meets-world" story, the chronicle of one child's struggle simply to be.
"In a riveting memoir, the author of the acclaimed Grand Central Winter: Stories from the Street (1998) goes back to his 1960s troubled childhood as a foster kid growing up poor and black in a wealthy white neighborhood in upstate New York. When his blind fury at a racist insult leads to violence, Lee gets sent to a school for troubled boys, where most kids are white and middle class and he stands out as the welfare kid who never had it so good. Told in more than 30 connected stories, the eloquent, present-tense narrative has the immediacy of Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life (1989), drawing you into the kid's world, sometimes joyful, more often weary, then suddenly wild with anger. There's not a word of rhetoric. But always the prejudice is there. Occasionally it's the n-word; more often it's condescension that drives him crazy (one teacher suggests Negroes are on earth to teach man tolerance). In the climactic story, the boy confronts his self-hatred and overcomes his fear that he might be like 'them'; he hears a black laborer sing a slave song and recognizes the 'pain and longing and heartbreak. Right down to the hollows of my soul.' It's an unforgettable coming-of-age." —Booklist, Starred Review
"Stringer deftly tells a believable, candid and vivid tale of a person scarred by his past." —Publishers Weekly
About Lee Stringer
LEE STRINGER's journey from childhood homelessness in the '60s, to adult homelessness in the '80s, to his present career as a writer and lecturer, as told in Sleepaway School and Grand Central Winter, is one of the great odysseys of contemporary American life and letters. Stringer, the only board member of Project Renewal who is also a former patient of the facility, has demonstrated that writers are made, not born. He is the author with Kurt Vonnegut of Like Shaking Hands with God, and is the two-time recipient of the Washington Irving Award and, in 2005, a Lannan Foundation Residency. He is a former editor and columnist of Street News. His essays and articles have appeared in a variety of other publications, including The Nation, The New York Times, and Newsday. He lives in Mamaroneck, New York, where he also serves on the board of the Mamaroneck Public Libraries.