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Me and Uncle Romie

Author John Cech (read by Marissa Noel)
Air Date 6/26/2007

Me and Uncle Romie Transcript

Romare Bearden is one of this country’s best known artists, and he’s the subject of Claire Hartfield’s new book, Me and Uncle Romie, with pictures by the award-winning illustrator, Jerome LaGarrigue. It takes Uncle Romie awhile to finally appear in this book, which imagines what it might have been like to be the nephew of such a distinguished person. But Bearden’s presence is felt everywhere — in Ms. Hartfield’s tenderly nuanced text and Mr. LaGarrigue’s luminous illustrations, which subtly reflect the collage techniques of Bearden’s work.

It’s a simple story. James, the young hero of the book, recalls for the reader how he was sent away one summer. New babies are on the way — twins, actually. “The doctor had told Mama she had to stay off her feet till the babies got born. Daddy thought it was a good time for me to visit Uncle Romie and his wife, Aunt Nanette, up north in New York City.. But I wasn’t so sure.” Before he knows it, James has his suitcase packed, with a jar of pepper jelly for Uncle Romie, and his father is seeing him off on the north-bound train.

These are the late 1950s, the days before Amtrack, in a time when a child might actually travel safely alone on a train and be looked after by kindly, attentive strangers, all the way to Penn Station, where he finds his aunt waiting for him on the platform. Aunt Nanette immediately wins James over, as she shows him the city and gets him involved in its whirl of life. She introduces him to stick-ball games and tar beach barbecues with the neighborhood kids, sends him running through the spray of open fire hydrants, and visits the city’s landmarks with him. Most of all, she teaches James how to listen to the city’s unique rhythms, its music.

What James “isn’t so sure” about is the distant presence of Uncle Romie, who seems to be in his studio in the front of the apartment most of the time, getting ready for a big exhibition of his paintings. But when Aunt Nanette has to be away on a family emergency, Uncle Romie becomes James’ chaperone, and they get to bond over the joys of watching trains (which Uncle Romie had done as a boy in North Carolina too), and eating pepper jelly by the spoonful, straight from the jar. Simple things.

“People live in all sorts of different places and families,” Uncle Romie tells James one evening while they’re talking in his studio before bedtime. “But the things we care about are pretty much the same.” It’s a transcendentally quiet, affecting moment, in this perceptive and touching book. The soft blues and greens and browns of LaGarrigue’s illustrations are, quite simply, radiant, aglow with life. This may be an imagined summer in the life of this artist, but, in the hands of two artists like Hartfield and LaGarrigue, it’s as real as real.

Posted in Literature