On the Rooftop by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton

On the RooftopIn some families, there is nothing stronger than a mother’s bond with her daughter. All those hopes and desires. All that need for guidance and protection. All that poured-on unconditional love. But what happens when a mother’s well-intentioned aspirations for her offspring conflict with her daughter’s ever-changing vision of herself?

In Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s showstopper of a third novel, On the Rooftop, this theme is explored with compassion, clear-eyed perception and been-around-the-block delivery. And when placed within the context of racial segregation and prejudice in midcentury America, the results are soul-shaking.

Set against the backdrop of the Fillmore, a Black neighborhood in gentrifying 1950s San Francisco, where the likes of Sam Cooke and Sarah Vaughan grace the stages of Bop City and other local music venues, On the Rooftop turns its spotlight on one family’s quest for musical stardom.

At its center is Vivian, the stalwart matriarch — “more lioness than woman” — who turned her back on her Southern roots to move with her soon-to-be husband to the Bay Area from Louisiana 25 years earlier, after the Ku Klux Klan murdered her father. Since her husband’s untimely death from a heart attack, Vivian’s sights have been set on getting her three daughters’ singing act, the Salvations, signed by a deep-pockets talent manager so they would no longer have to live “a finger-snap away from poverty.

But as Sexton slowly reveals over the course of this expertly paced novel, Vivian’s daily rehearsals with Ruth, Esther and Chloe on top of their building and the girls’ weekly sold-out gigs at the Champagne Supper Club just might not be enough to make the long-standing dream a reality.

As she did in her previous books — the National Book Award-longlisted A Kind of Freedom and the equally stunning sophomore novel The Revisioners — Sexton makes the smart choice to tell the story from multiple perspectives, each with its own history-proven lesson to impart.


Margaret Wilkerson Sexton is the author of “On the Rooftop.”

In addition to the story of Vivian, whose struggle-laden arc takes her from aggrieved widow to myopic stage mother to exhausted matron faced with the prospect of new love (hint: Vivian’s late-stage romance with the much-sought-after Preacher Thomas, though totally foreseeable, is right up there in literature’s greatest), there’s the trajectory of 24-year-old Ruth. Her story jumps from her place at the center of the Salvations to marriage to early motherhood. A telling quote here: “There was the waking and the feeding and the shushing and the rocking and the laundering and the folding. … There was a fist in her chest that compressed tighter over the course of the day, and Ruth was waiting for it to reduce its pressure.”

Esther’s story, filled with fiery outbursts about her mother’s viselike control and episodes of “feeling like worse than invisible” next to her talented older sister, is the most textbook, though no less compelling, of the three. Through Esther’s move to forgo her singing career in order to use her voice to protest the redevelopment of the Fillmore and elsewhere, we witness firsthand the fundamental need for empowered Black female voices in racial, class and gender movements.

But it’s 20-year-old Chloe’s coming of age, from naive ingenue to fully formed leading lady, that calls for a standing ovation. Sexton’s deft handling of Chloe’s secret courtship with a white boy named James — and her slow reveal of James’ connection to the changes happening in the Fillmore — demonstrate not only how far we’ve come in terms of racial politics since the 1950s, but the distance we have yet to travel.

On the Rooftop is a powerhouse novel that reflects both how high we can fly and how quickly we can be knocked down. But Sexton’s message is clear: “Oh, yes, change (blows) in like the wind,” she writes. The best we can do is lift our arms up, steer when we can, and make the most out of the ride.

On the Rooftop
By Margaret Wilkerson Sexton
(Ecco; 304 pages; $28.99)

Originally ran in the San Francisco Chronicle (August 29, 2022)

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