A Hero Ain't Nothin' But A Sandw

by Alice Childress

Alice Childress is a writer, actress and director. She brings her theatrical experience to the novel in characterization and dialogue.
Miss Childress was born in Charleston, South Carolina, but grew up and attended high school in Harlem. She was a member of the American Negro Theater for ten years. From 1966 to 1968 she received a Harvard - appointment to the Radcliffe Institute. She is a community - elected board member of the Francis - Delafield City Hospital and also a member of the Harlem Writers Club and the New Dramatics.

The Story:
The story is about a thirteen year old black boy, who is well on his way being hooked on heroin. His name is Benjie Johnson. He lives in a flat, together with his mother, grandmother and his stepfather Butler Craig. His real father left his mother years ago. Benjie feels that his mother and all relatives do not care about him. His former friend Jimmy Lee - Powell gave him his first joint. One time Benjie is at a friend of him, who pushes drugs, some boys say that he is too soft for heroin. So he makes his first fix, shoots heroin into his veins.
He uses drugs more and more often, once he even attends class high. After that he is sent to hospital for detox. When he leaves the hospital his mother and grandmother tell him they really want to care about him now. Nevertheless Benjie steals Butler’s suit one night in case to get some skag (heroin) for it. Because of this incident, Butler rents another room and does not live with Benjie and his mother any more. Mrs. Johnson and her mother are very sad about that, so they go to a fortune - teller, because of something they read in the newspaper. The fortune - teller gives them magical gimmicks in order to exorcise all evil from Benjie and bring Butler back to them. Though Benjie is bathing in those herbs of the fortune - teller he steals a toaster from the woman, in whose flat Butler is living. Mr.Craig sees him and chases Benjie up to the roof, and as he is endangered to fall off the building, because he tried to jump to another one, Butler Craig saves his life. That is the point from which on Benjie respects him like a father. He tries to give up drugs and goes to the addiction center.........

The main characters:
Benjie Johnson:
Benjie thinks the whole world is against him and that nobody really loves him. And even his mother does not love him any more, that is why she wanted Butler to live with them. He also thinks, as the most drug - addicts do, that he is not really addicted to drugs. He quotes: "If you ‘on’ somethin’, that mean you hooked and can’t give up.... I ain’t hooked.... I take somethin’ sometime, but I ain’t no user..." Benjie does not like Butler in the first place, and feels he is a rival for the love of his mother. What I admired about Benjie was, that he really lives a very hard life and does not give up though everything seems hopeless. He had no real childhood, he is 13 years of age and talking like a twenty year old gangster. Though he is so young he already is very strong, because he was able to give up fixing without much energy. But it is a horrible thought, that such lives really exist. I am sure in the slums of the big American cities this novel has become reality several times. And I think Alice Childress made her novel up from things she heard or even experienced in her childhood.

Mrs. Rose Johnson (Benjie’s mother):
She is very happy to have a man like Butler Craig on her side. He is her support and it is difficult for her to live without his strength. She definitely loves Benjie but it is very hard for to get along with his addiction. Rose tries everything to help her son, as the walk to the fortune - teller shows she really tries the oddest possibilities in which she does not even believe in general. With Benjie addicted Butler is everything for her, she needs him, needs him deadly. And drugs are about to destroy her whole life: "Dope is the trouble. Dope is taking away my son and my man.... I want both of ‘em back." She is a very strict mother and likely to explode and get red hot. But Rose also is a kind mother, who really loves her son and does not want her son to die of heroin. Besides Benjie I consider her the strongest person in the novel. Because it must drive a mother crazy to see her 13(!!!!!) - year old son on the way to the graveyard. But without her devotion Benjie would have died within weeks.

Mr. Butler Craig (Benjije’ stepfather):
Butler Craig is a strong, smooth and very cool seeming man. He loves Mrs. Johnson more than anything. He needs her as much as she needs him and that is why they love each other to this high amount. He tries hard to be a good father to Benjie, but the kid rejects all efforts made by Butler. This disapproval shows off in the stealing of Butler’s suit. That is also the incident that drives Butler away from Rose and Benjie: "I’m missin’ her more and more. Damn Benjie Johnson!" I do not think he hates Benjie, Butler just does not want to get rejections from Benjie every day (and of course he does not want him to steal him more of his things. At first they come along with each other, but not too well. And their relationship reaches the deepest point as Benjie steals the suit to get money for heroin. But after Butler saved Benjie’s life they really tighten up their relationship. After that Butler really feels Benjie is his son, before that he just thought of himself as the "trying - to - be - a - good" stepfather, and did not care much if Benjie showed his dislike for him. From now on he really is anxious about the appreciation of Benjie. This strengthened feelings for Benjie show in the end as Butler waits in front of the addiction center for Benjie to come out a clean, normal 13 - year old boy, for his son: "Come on Benjie, I believe in you, I’m waitin’ for you.... Benjie don’t hold back, come on I’m waitin for you, hurry up I’m waitin’ boy..... It’s nation time.... I’m waitin’......"

Own Opinion:
This book is about drugs as well as about the life in the slums of big (American) cities. I liked it pretty much. It is narrated in a very bizarre way, because the each of the characters tells the story from his point of view and so you can put the whole novel together like a puzzle. The truth lies somewhere between the person’s comments. I never read a book, constructed like this one.
I think it is a good piece of art, though the language is extremely hard to read. Alice Childress writes like the people talk and this is very, very difficult sometimes. I had to read several sentences twice sometimes even three times before I understood what the character was saying. But besides those difficulties it is really worth reading.
Alice Childress describes the characters very lively and puts up a short but good story. Nevertheless I think the book could be longer, because once you get used to the language it really grips you and you cannot stop reading.
Overall a great book with an interesting technique by the author to tell the whole story.


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