“The Vineyard We Knew” by Kevin Parham. Available at Bunch of Grapes in Vineyard Haven, C’est La Vie in Oak Bluffs, and Edgartown Books.
Kevin Parham has written a gem of a memoir about his life as an African-American city kid summering on Martha’s Vineyard in the bucolic 1950s and in the charged 1960s.
This book sneaks up on you. Mr. Parham quietly enfolds the reader into the personalities of his family and friends, particularly his gaggle of siblings, cousins, and himself — initially an unwilling vacationer — as we watch them evolve each summer from children into teenagers under the ever-watchful eye of Nana, before whom Attila the Hun would quail.
Mr. Parham’s work is redolent with minute details of daily summer life on the Vineyard in the late 1950s, a full generation before well-heeled crowds packed the Island. In his introduction, Mr. Parham — a writer and musician who lives in Plymouth with his wife, Olivia — notes that he has had extensive conversations with family and friends to recreate specific events and activities of their coming of age years.
Mr. Parham, an Oak Bluffs summer resident, will discuss “The Vineyard We Knew” on Thursday, July 24, at 6:30 pm at the Oak Bluffs Library.
What we get is an unflinching, unsanitized story, told sequentially through the eyes of a small child, an adolescent, and a coming-of-age teen, overlaid with the perspective of an adult who understands its significance in shaping the person he has become.
Writing through his child’s eye, for example, Mr. Parham employs infinitesimal detail to create an apparently vast physical universe around Nana’s home at 48 Pacific Avenue in Oak Bluffs — just as the world would appear to a six- or seven-year-old.
In fact, his detailed descriptions of the walking and bike routes taken by he and his siblings and friends through fields, woods, fruit orchards, and the cemetery en route to Circuit Avenue, less than a half-mile away, seemed so exotic to me that I went to the site of 48 Pacific Ave. last Sunday morning in an attempt to recreate for myself what that landscape must have looked like 50 years ago.
The neighborhood today is far different from the unheated two-bedroom shacks of Mr. Parham’s youth. I encountered rehabs and new builds with appropriately Spandex-clad inhabitants, but I saw little evidence of the unruly riot of flora and fauna that caught the eye and stimulated the imagination of an urban kid willing himself to live and flourish in an unfamiliar environment.
Nana’s summer roost is long gone, replaced by the Oak Bluffs Library. However, if you pause to sit on the bench at the gazebo next to the library, where 48 Pacific Ave. stood, you will find an inscription on it to Carrie White and Beatrice Parham Hammonds, Mr. Parham’s grandmother and mother.
“The Vineyard We Knew” is also a story of wary, urban African-American kids who discovered the freedom of acceptance, of being one with a polyglot community of cultures and skin tones on an island far removed from a formalized culture of racism 80 miles away in Boston.
Mr. Parham tells us he is glad of that early experience as he managed his way through assassinations, the wars against racism in this country and in Vietnam, and the peace and love movement of blessed memory, including his initial participation in the sexual revolution on the Island during the summer of his 17th year.
This is his first try at authorship. “I wrote the book because I had always shared stories with family and friends of our time on the Vineyard,” he told The Times in a phone conversation last week.
“Really, the book is to honor my mother and my grandmother for what they’d done for us, the sacrifices they made that I only understood as an adult. Maybe I was also hearkening back to a time long-past.
“But I do believe that our experiences as children are definitely a blueprint for the rest of our lives. During childhood, of course, we have no frame of reference about that. No awareness of what’s possible through perseverance.”
Mr. Parham’s willingness to show us his insides — fears, insecurities, and pratfalls — during a youthful decade or more of his life on the Island is authentic and will jog our own memories of the scary growing-up time. If you’re an Islander, his descriptions and references to long-gone people and places here will remind you of a simpler time in your life.
Author’s Talk with Kevin Parham, Thursday, July 24, 6:30 pm, Oak Bluffs Library. For more information, call 508-693-9433.