Associate professor’s debut novel unites city as Chicago Public Library’s One Book, One Chicago’s 20th anniversary selection

By Amaris Edwards, Staff Reporter

Vivian Jones

Growing up on Chicago’s Far South Side, Eric Charles May saw a lack of literary representation of Black communities like his in the books he read. Now May, an associate professor in the English and Creative Writing Department, is helping to make sure readers have more diversity in their choice of literature.

May’s 2014 debut novel “Bedrock Faith” is the One Book, One Chicago’s 2021 anniversary selection, celebrating the program’s 20th year. The novel captures Gerald “Stew Pot” Reeves’ reintegration to his close-knit, Black and middle-class community on Chicago’s Far South Side after 14 years in prison.

“It’s a part of the city that oftentimes, particularly when you’re talking about African Americans — it’s the part of Black Chicago that doesn’t get talked about much,” said May, who grew up in Morgan Park.

Residents of Parkland, a fictional neighborhood with similarities to the one where May grew up, are hesitant to accept him, all except for the widowed, retired next-door neighbor, Mrs. Motley, who lends him a Bible as a welcoming gesture.

Beneath escalating conflicts between community members lies the heart of the story: how people come together to create a community, develop deep connections and provide a communal system of support, forgiveness and understanding.

Launched in 2001, One Book, One Chicago is a free, citywide literary program that bridges Chicagoans and their communities through reading. This year’s program began in September and continues through the end of December, exploring the novel through this year’s central theme: “Neighborhoods: Our City’s Bedrock.”

The library has engaged Chicagoans with “Bedrock Faith” through author events, book discussions, film screenings, art workshops, exhibits, walking tours, storytelling classes, lectures, games and more.

May said he was “over the moon” and honored when he learned “Bedrock Faith” was selected.

“It’s kind of heady to think of so many people around the city reading the book you wrote,” May said.

May said he wanted to write a story about the African American working and middle class on the Far South Side — specifically, a story whose driving drama was not white oppression.

“Not that white oppression doesn’t exist or that the novel doesn’t acknowledge its existence, but I wanted to write a novel about working, middle-class African Americans in which drug use, poverty and or emotional dysfunction on all parts was not necessarily driving the story,” May said. “I wanted to get something about the sensibility of the kinds of people that I grew up around when I was growing up on the Far South Side.”

Pegeen Reichert Powell, chair of the English and Creative Writing Department, said May manages to give the reader a history of the Black Chicago community without the novel feeling like a history book.

Reichert Powell said the real strength of “Bedrock Faith” is the characters.

“There’s just a wide cast of characters, and most of them are so compelling as people, so complicated as people,” Reichert Powell said. “You’re just so sympathetic [toward the characters]. The way [May] takes you on that ride is amazing.”

Reichert Powell reflects on how real Mrs. Motley came to her after reading the book. When struggling with a task at work, Reichert Powell said she found herself thinking, “What would Mrs. Motley do?”

“She had become so real to me that I just wanted to talk to her and say, ‘What do you think I should do?'” Reichert Powell said.

With One Book, One Chicago coming to a close, Chicago Public Library will be hosting a livestreamed discussion between May and adult books editor at Booklist, Donna Seaman. The event will be broadcast on Dec. 2 on the Chicago Public Library’s Youtube and Facebook accounts, with a portion of the discussion dedicated to audience questions.