Thursday, July 21, 2011

"The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk" by Randy Shilts

I still feel embarrassed by the fact that I haven’t seen the movie "Milk" yet. I heard great things about it and I really wanted to see it, not to mention it has some of my favorite actors. Sadly, it was just one of those movies that I never got around to seeing, though I’ll probably watch it in the next few weeks since I’ve got the time. However, I have to get to the point now. Randy Shilts’ biography, "The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk" tells the story of Harvey Milk, as does the movie I missed out on. In fact, some have argued that this book is better because it’s more realistic.

Milk’s early life seems to ring true to the closeted teen archetype. Though a rather well built, strong athlete, he had to hide his love of opera from all of his school friends. He rode the train into New York City once a week to see the opera at the Met, yet not one of his high school friends knew about it. He didn’t seem too tortured by his secret (outwardly); people would make fun of his large nose and he’d chime in and make a joke better than everyone else’s. After spending time on the East Coast with some lovers on the way, he moved to San Francisco. There he experienced the Counterculture movement of the 60’s and was changed forever. While people were trying to remain happy, the laws against homosexuality were causing over 2,000 gay men to be arrested in one year. He finally decided to get involved in politics once the authorities came to his camera store to demand money for sales tax. The rest is history.

I really like Randy Shilts’ writing style. He writes as if he was a personal friend of Milk’s, and he is unapologetic in everything he says. His use of commonly known swear words and lack of real censorship would lead me to believe that this book would better suit a mature audience, rather than a middle school student. I personally really enjoy a more personal writing style, as it draws me more into the story and feels more inviting. And honestly, Harvey Milk’s story is an extremely inviting one. The fact that he was so successful and so well liked in his community is truly inspiring. It takes a lot to be christened the unofficial “mayor” in any community, much less one so large as Castro Street in San Francisco. I believe that Milk is generally regarded as a beacon of hope to all people, especially the gay and lesbian community. He did so much and got so far in his short life. And though his life was cut short, that doesn’t make it any less important or valid. Every political figure has a naysayer or two, no matter how well liked he or she may seem. Each person will have someone who tries to bring him or her down, but it’s the accomplishments we make in spite of our non-believers that truly make us rise. Shilts ends his Author’s Note with a really inspirational quote from the historian John Boswell. It reads, “What will strike some readers as a partisan point of view is chiefly the absence of negative attitudes on this subject ubiquitous in the modern West; after a long, loud noise, a sudden silence may seem deafening.” More people are probably with you than against you, and that’s a very important thing to remember.

Review by Soraya. Add your review of "The Mayor Of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk" by Randy Shilts in comments!

[A note from Lee: Dustin Lance Black won an Oscar for his screenplay for "Milk" and his acceptance speech was really inspiring. Check it out here!]


ivanova said...

I love this book! I read it when I was 17. When I saw the movie Milk, I knew all the parts that seemed so Hollywood really happened--like the teenaged boy with a disability in Minnesota who called Harvey because he was planning to kill himself.

I think Randy Shilts is a tremendously great writer and his other two history-books-that-read-like-novels are excellent also. I read And The Band Played On, his book about the AIDS epidemic and government indifference to it, twice. Then after I read Conduct Unbecoming, his book about gays and lesbians in the military, I looked him up to see what he had been doing lately. I learned that he had finished Conduct Unbecoming while he was in the hospital and died of AIDS the next year in 1994. He was only 42.

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

There's also a documentary about Harvey Milk, "The Times of Harvey Milk," which is well worth seeing.