An absolute, can't put down page turner is the best way to describe Winfred Cook's Uncle Otto. Set in 1920s/1930s Arkansas and St. Louis, the narrator introduces us to his disabled Uncle Otto, for whom he's named. A stroke that left Otto incapable of speaking clearly has caused him to be a shell of the man he used to be, but the birth of his namesake brings a spark that the rest of the family hasn't seen in years. The younger Otto becomes fascinated with his uncle and persuades his grandparents to tell his story.
Through this story the reader is introduced to Beaumont, Arkansas and the great migration of several African American families from the South to northern industrial cities, such as St. Louis. As a resident of St. Louis, I'm always fascinated by the history of this city. The author does a wonderful job of describing St. Louis as it was then. It's even more meaningful to me because I reside in the general area in which the families live so I'm familiar with the streets mentioned. It's also interesting to note that families migrating north found a city as segregated as St. Louis was, and still is, to be a hot bed of integration in comparison to Arkansas and other southern cities.
I love that the author subtly touches upon the difference real fathering can make in a man's life. Though raised in a two parent home, the title character quickly falls prey to the streets because his father doesn't know how to communicate with him and properly teach him how to be a man. There's also the misconception that parenting is strictly the mother's job. In the eyes of his father he has provided a home, food and clothing and since that's more than his father did for him, he's gone over and above what's expected of him. It's not touched upon by the author but I suspect that the daughters suffered the lack of fatherly attention also and as a result, two of the three sisters have children out of wedlock.
The only disturbing thing that I found about this story is that there's no hero at the end of the day. I suppose that's only human though and as true to life as one can get.