McDowell's journey into her past begins with a return. Years after the mysterious death of her father, a former employee at the local steel mill, she found herself back in Pipe Shop--the black working class neighborhood in Bessemer, Alabama, where she was raised--for what she reckoned would only be a brief visit. Surrounded by places still resonant with the sights, sounds, and people of her youth--an extended network of kin and a vibrant neighborhood of enterprising folk--she became engulfed by memories of the once familiar. In a family of three generations bonded together, she was guided and shaped by the formidable presence of her great-grandmother, her forceful and independent grandmother, her own steadfast, resourceful mother, and her father, from whom she inherited a love of words. These and other member of this memorable family are brought vividly to life as McDowell traces the lush contours of her childhood landscape: the everyday ritual of going for ice cream, her teenage cotillion sponsored by her grandmother's social club, the slaying of a local minister who was a prominent Civil Rights activist. With a skilled hand, Deborah McDowell seduces us with these memories, some tinged with sadness, others colored with warmth and humor.
More than a simple coming of age story, Leaving Pipe Shopis an evocation of growing up black in the South and the eve of the tumultuous sixties, a portrait of a culture in transition, of a Southern world in the throes of political and economic change. Here is the debut of a rich and powerful voice in American memoir.