Winfred Cook, the author of this Indie Excellence Finalist Book Awards paints a picture of a turbulent life in St. Louis, where his uncle would succumb to a stroke that would leave him partially paralyzed.
Rumor has it that a jealous lover bent on keeping him from another woman had poisoned him with strychnine. Another story implied that his lover was demented. Uncle Otto was a big man, six foot three, two hundred twenty-five pounds, and quite handsome.
The author makes note of the fact that the stroke hadn’t affected his strong facial features, but that he was solemn and rarely smiled afterwards. Cook speaks endearingly of Uncle Otto when he was a young child, when he states; “Uncle Otto was my protector when my mother wasn’t around.”
I am sure that everyone has that “Uncle Otto” in their family, in my case I had two, Uncle George in Kansas City and another Uncle George in Chicago. They both had similar attributes as Cook’s Uncle Otto, and just as Cook describes in this warm and well written story, I have fond memories of them.
Set in St. Louis on Delmar Street in the 1940s, this book resonates with me, for I was actually born in Missouri just south of St. Louis in a small town called Charleston – and even once lived in St. Louis as did the author. Typical of large black families during this period was the fact that in a big three-story twin building on Delmar lived several families, grandparents, uncles and aunts, mother and father, along with a host of cousins.
In a phone interview with the author Cook he explained to me that much of what he has written about Uncle Otto was passed on to him by relatives, and is partially fictional. But the overall theme of this book is about a character that we all can embrace and identify with. That is a thin line between what is fact and fiction in this book, which makes it that much more enjoyable. It helps that Cook is a master story teller, as indicated in his subsequent book Wayfarers. The way he weaves together diverse people and periods of time is an art, which he demonstrates in the story.
The story of Uncle Otto actually takes us through his childhood up until the point and circumstances of his stroke and paralysis, the paralysis being on his right side and that the condition caused him to step with his left foot and drag the right one along, with his right arm dangling by his side. But before this condition, Cook talks of the wild and loose life that Uncle Otto lived. It is a story of heists as a young boy, running the streets with his best friend Buster, and his first love Shirley. It was from that first love, and while he was yet a teenager that his son Odell Smith was born. Perhaps it was this earlier wild and loose life that would lead to his subsequent incapacitation.
The novel has been described as complex in plot and character development, displaying one of the most sophisticated analyses of black migration from southern rural settings to those of the urban north during the early 20th century in the United States, and representing a period of time that is underrepresented in literature. This Literary Soul Food from Cook is a book that I highly recommend.
Dennis Moore has been a writer and book reviewer with the East County Magazine in San Diego and the book review editor for SDWriteway, an online newsletter for writers in San Diego, and a contributor to EURweb. He is the author of a book about Chicago politics; “The City That Works: Power, Politics and Corruption in Chicago.” He can be contacted at [email protected] or you can follow him on Twitter at: @DennisMoore8.