Katharine Boo begins her 2003 New Yorker piece “The Marriage Cure” with one of my all-time favorite opening lines:
One July morning last year in Oklahoma City, in a public-housing project named Sooner Haven, twenty-two-year-old Kim Henderson pulled a pair of low-rider jeans over a high-rising gold lamé thong and declared herself ready for church.
It’s probably one of the few times — if ever — that “gold lamé thong” and “church” have met in a sentence.
And so we begin this journey into life in Sooner Haven. We are right next to Kim and her best friend as they play by the rules and do everything “right” to escape the project’s looming fence and poverty, only to have every bus pass them by.
Boo, high priestess of observation and dialogue, quickly introduces us to Kim’s mission:
Her best friend in the project, Corean Brothers, was already in the parking lot, fanning away her hot flashes behind the wheel of a smoke-belching Dodge Shadow. “Car’s raggedy, but it’ll get us from pillar to post,” Corean said when Kim climbed in. At Holy Temple Baptist Church, two miles down the road, the state of Oklahoma was offering the residents of Sooner Haven three days of instruction on how to get and stay married.
This — an exploration of this larger government experiment, the so-called “marriage cure” for America’s poor, specifically the black urban poor — initially appears to be the story’s angle. But the actual piece becomes something much richer and damning: an indictment of just how trapped the urban poor are in American ghettos. (Trapped, as one of Kim and Corean’s neighbors says, “in our cage,” referring to the project’s fence, a defining symbol.) But instead of writing a raging treatise or a dry policy analysis, Boo interweaves two human stories — one friendship — to wake readers up and shake them down.
The world Kim and Corean inhabit is one where can-do American notions of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” — what Kim refers to as her “normal-lady plan” — are challenged by a maze of obstacles. Scene, by scene, Boo builds her case. In one, the recently unemployed Kim has had her phone cut off because of an outstanding $59 bill, leaving no way for prospective employers to reach her. So she decides to take the bus to a mall where she’s recently applied for jobs.
The mall is far from her neighborhood. It turns out the simple act of taking a bus is a leap of faith in these parts. Boo knows all you need is straightforward language to get through a disturbing truth:
It is an unhappy fact of Oklahoma City life that bus drivers bypass would-be riders in very poor neighborhoods, and blacks in less poor ones.
She then touches on another thread in the story: how government policies often work at cross-purposes. We learn that Kim, who has decided not to have children until she is married and financially secure, is not eligible for the same subsidy, to buy a car, that so many of her friends receive as single mothers. Here, Boo lets the irony do the talking, writing simply:
Childless Kim must rely on buses.
As Kim waits for more than an hour for the bus to stop for her, Boo delivers deep personal details:
Kim has tried to develop constructive ways of venting her frustration. She had kept a journal until a relative discovered it and passed it around. She tried to talk into an imaginary tape recorder, but that made her feel crazy. Lately, she had settled on the “weird but hopefully less pathetic” technique of translating her anxieties and hopes into unmetered, blues songs. “Help may not come just when I want it to,” she sang to the street, “but when it comes it might not be too late.”
When Kim finally arrives at the mall, Boo notes, the smell of cinnamon buns reminds her that she has not eaten. But when a $10 bill falls to the ground in front of her, from a shopper’s purse, Kim rushes to return it to its owner. Only Boo notices what is going on as Kim lowers “her lashes to hide the fact that her eyes had filled with tears.”
On the way home, with one lead on a potential job, which will not pan out, Boo again documents more buses that don’t stop, and lets us in on Kim’s coping mechanisms for similarly frustrating situations, such as rehearsing answers to potential interview questions and trying to “recall in detail the happiest days of her life:”
Another bus was coming through the shopping plaza. Kim stepped forward, signaling furiously. When it swerved around her, she sank to the curb. The bus was not only the seventh one to pass her that day; it was the last bus to Sooner Haven until morning. In terms of landmass, Oklahoma City is the third-largest metropolis in America, and she was a five-hour walk from home.
That image — “She sank to the curb” — feels like a punch to the gut and goes to Boo’s exploration of what keeps someone like Kim going, what makes her stay true to her plans, her eyes fixed on a prize she cannot see but so desperately knows she needs.
Boo gives Sooner Haven the feel of character. She decodes its language. It’s a place where “Where he at?” refers to prison, and “De Las’ One” is the name a neighbor gave her newborn. Throughout the story, she segues between Kim and Corean’s lives. Corean is several years older. She’s a divorced, religious, single mother of five on the verge of an empty nest. Boo, knowing the power of a nickname to impart a sense of character, notes at opportune moments that Corean’s five children call her “the Reverend Doctor Mom.”
Boo uses one of the most powerful pieces of Corean’s story to reinforce the “trapped” theme. It’s the story of Corean’s youngest son, Fella. At 18, an A student and an injured football player, he is much beloved by his high school teachers. He dreams of becoming a doctor and of getting scholarships to fulfill that dream. Corean, who, we learn grew up poor herself as a Florida farmhand, is determined to educate her children. Boo reveals more of her character in details like this one:
Corean is the rare mother of an Oklahoma high-school footballer who doesn’t know what position her boy plays. But in a drawer by her bed she has every standardized-test score he’s brought home since preschool.
But despite all of Fella’s achievement and drive and family hopes, the bus, as it were, for scholarships to college, appears to also be passing him by. Boo paraphrases the pastor who teaches the “Marriage Cure” class, and who argued, during a sermon, that “colleges recruit inner-city boys with athletic talent, not inner-city boys with good grades:”
Fella wasn’t big enough to be a serious college football player. “It’s fun, I like it,” he said. “But the human brain, the science of it—that’s what amazes me.” He was already a third of his way through his senior year, however, and had yet to be advised about college by overworked guidance counselors, whose numbers had been reduced by a state budget crisis. “I don’t know about any colleges, really,” Fella said, “though if I don’t get scholarships I can’t blame anyone but me. They say the money’s out there. I just can’t say for sure where it is.”
Corean is so determined to send Fella to college that she travels to Georgia, hoping to find records from her father’s side of the family to prove Native American descent. Proof would ensure Fella’s eligibility for scholarships and assistance. But here, too, all that hard work leads to despair when she finds that a certain “Suzanna Sunbeam,” a Native American relative, was not her grandmother but rather her great-grandmother, “which meant there wasn’t enough Indian blood in Corean’s son Fella to do his doctor dreams a lick of good.”
By the story’s end, the two friends appear on different trajectories. Kim remains hopeful; Corean appears defeated. A parting image of Corean, observed with Boo’s signature talent for detail-driven poignancy, brings the story to its crushing close:
She still attended the mostly female singles meetings at her church, trying to heed what her kids said about not hiding her light under a bushel. But she was more broke than ever, the toddlers were exhausting, and the brakes on her car had given out. So most days she stayed inside the fence.
Dina Kraft is a former foreign correspondent in Jerusalem and Johannesburg, and is currently based in Cambridge, Mass. She has been a regular contributor to the New York Times, the Daily Telegraph, and Haaretz, and has taught journalism at Boston University. She was a 2012 Nieman Fellow at Harvard. Follow her at @dinakraft.
For another “Why’s this so good?” take on Boo’s “The Marriage Cure,” see Doug McCray’s piece from 2011.