Synopsis: Teen-aged Winter struggles through a series of hardships after her king-pin father is arrested, upsetting her life completely. Her sisters are taken by social services, her mother develops an addiction, and Winter is on her own navigating street life and trying to hustle for herself.
Review & Commentary:
This is the first time that I have read this book, which was first published in the 90s. Sister Souljah does action well, keeping a fast-pace throughout this novel. She also has a knack for portraying youth and their experiences quite realistically, and has achieved this by setting up a believable first-person narrative. However, some of the elements of the story didn't quite tie together for me, which was something to be expected from a book that has since been heralded as a classic of its genre.
Sister Souljah interjects herself into the novel (a trick of meta-fiction I've noticed in other urban lit novels that I suspect borrow from this one), but it fails to underscore any meaningful message Souljah may have had and comes off instead as arrogant. It seems the intention was to provide a dialogue between herself, the writer, and young persons who don't support her activism. Perhaps even it was intended to permit the writer to tell those young persons she is supportive of them and respects their viewpoints. But the way Sister Souljah attempts this feels clunky and forced, as if she is merely tooting her own horn. She appears on a pedestal at different intervals to chime in, but her message isn't accepted by any of the main characters with mixed results. Ultimately it just sends a confusing message. In fact, upon reading The Coldest Winter Ever, one can't be sure just what Souljah is even trying to say.
Perhaps it is an anti-drug message for youth. Yet, a golden halo surrounds character Midnight, even as he defends his involvement in drug-dealing, while Sister Souljah's character trumpets in the background about why this is morally wrong, and it doesn't seem Midnight ever comes to her side on this issue. This strange juxtaposition is furthered by the choices Souljah makes in the denouement. Protagonist Winter Santiaga never reconciles with her mother, who develops an addiction earlier in the novel, and even at the end seems to be firmly sided with her father (as she has since the exposition) who could be blamed for much of her own struggles, that of her mother, and that of her sisters. Winter's narrative insists she's learned a hard lesson after being imprisoned herself, but it doesn't seem she really has -
"So instead of saying what I had learned, what was on the tip of my tongue, I said nothing at all. Hell, I'm not into meddling in other people's business. I definitely don't be making no speeches. Fuck it. She'll learn for herself. That's the way it is" (pg. 337).
But, of course, Winter doesn't learn for herself, even after being betrayed and facing time. It also seems the author is undercutting herself by never allowing Winter to see her activism positively. In this way, the novel fails to provide a strong resolution and brings the reader to question the author's own internalized misogyny. Particularly when Sister Souljah chooses to include a number of disturbing scenes stressing the violence, homophobia, and hatred of women that are rife in lower-income, high-crime areas, a more hopeful message that counteracts those attitudes is desired by the reader. It is strange that Sister Souljah represents herself as having many boyfriends, but is apparently asexual, in contrast to the other female characters. It is as if to say that they are to blame for their own mistreatment through their sexual promiscuity. Yet the character of Winter's mother is sufficient to remind the reader this is not the case. A garbled, rather strange clash of perspective is left with a cast of strongly stereotyped, static characters that interact but never influence each other or change or evolve in a meaningful way.
The novel also could have benefited from stronger editing and revision, which is something that I have come to expect from urban lit novels. A number of typos and grammatical mistakes are distracting throughout.
Overall, I found The Coldest Winter Ever to be entertaining; but feel it could have been much stronger and deliver a clearer, less conflicting message to its readers.