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Book Review: Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead

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Sag Harbor is Colson Whitehead’s fourth book. It is a coming of age novel where Whitehead harvests personal experiences to shape the story of two brothers, Benji and Reggie, in the summer of 1985. Sag Harbor is an interesting place because it is a summer haven for African American professional people and families to “come out.” When someone “comes out,” it means they are in Sag Harbor.

Some of the homes are handed down and have been in families for generations, and it would be unheard of to sell your spot in paradise. Reggie and Benji spend the school year as the only two black students in a prestigious prep school in New York City. Sag Harbor and Manhattan are worlds apart.

Colson Whitehead’s style of writing is so free and appears to be effortless. The dialogue flows naturally and his descriptive phrases move like the lapping of the ocean waves breaking on the beach. Sentences flow over and over with a metered cadence of lilting lyrics. Sometimes paragraphs are written so well they are too good to only read once:

The sunset made it appear that the sun and the sky were not separate things but different states of the same magnificent substance – as if the sky were a weakened diluted form of the sun, the blue and the white merely drained-away elements of the swirling red-and-orange disk sitting on the horizon.

Benji provides the narration for the author’s autobiographical story. The characters are different, but the streets, houses, and community he grew up in are the same. When the story begins, Benji and Reggie are inseparable, but as the summer unfolds they drift apart in many ways.

Sag Harbor the shipping port, the town in Moby Dick, the summer vacation spot, and now the book. Sag Harbor is a keepsake of memories as two boys have a summer of fun and awareness of their racial identity. As they prepare to leave their vacation and head home, they look to the future with a better understanding of who they are.

Colson Whitehead’s Sag Harbor is so funny, genuine, and passionate he leads us beyond the limits of racial boundaries.

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