Sharon Gang, Featured Collaborator
I first read Troy Lewis' life stories on my phone. He'd sent them to me in individual chapters; and, I read them while I waited for a technician to fix my computer at work. When the technician apologized for taking so long, I told him I didn't mind as I was engrossed in what I was reading on my tiny screen. The stories have held up well in the completed version of this tale of personal growth.
There are two narratives at play in Gas Money. One is the story of Lewis' life – growing up in rural southern Virginia (Middlesex County) in the 1960s and living as an adult in New Jersey and elsewhere. The other narrative is the story of what was going on in southern Virginia in the 1960s when Lewis was a child.
The title of the book refers to the advice and direction people gave Lewis throughout his life. In each chapter, he identifies the people who gave him the "gas money" needed to take him from one destination to the next on his life's journey.
When Lewis describes what it was like for him in third grade to go to an integrated elementary school, he is telling the story in a very personal way of what happened as a result of the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education:
"Third grade marked the first time we received new textbooks instead of 'hand-me-downs' from the white schools. We also got a few new school buses, too, as opposed to the older buses that the white school didn't want anymore," Lewis writes. He was confused when his white teacher, Mrs. Ruth St. John, was nice to him. "I thought these white teachers were going to be prejudiced."
In interviews after he published Gas Money, Lewis has called himself a child reporter. He's a good one. His stories of growing up are descriptively rich. He captures dialog from 50 years ago that is fresh and real. For example, here's what Lewis' mother, whom he calls "Mumma," tells him when he is confronted with mixed-race kids:
(Lewis) asked: "What kinda kids are those over there?" Mumma answered, "Troy, does it really matter what kind of kids they are? Aren't they just kids? Now, shut up and go play."
It turns out these kids were the children of Richard and Mildred Loving, the black woman and white man who were at the center of the Supreme Court decision that invalidated laws prohibiting interracial marriage. Mildred Loving was Lewis' third cousin. The Lovings and their children attended family reunions with Lewis for many years.
Mumma is really the hero of the book. In fact, the book is almost as much Mumma's story as Lewis'. At the age of 16, Mumma was taking care of her five younger siblings after her parents took jobs in Pennsylvania as "domestics" for a white family. This allowed them to make more money than they could in Middlesex County. At 18, Mumma gave birth to Lewis; and a year later, she had Troy's sister, Bridgette. When a young cousin moved in with the family in 1962, Mumma had to take care of a husband and eight kids.
Lewis' father, "Da," left the family in 1973, when Lewis was 12. He ran away with the wife of the white middle school principal (whom he later married). The story of how Mumma caught Da and Mrs. Meredith in the act and later held Da at gunpoint is the stuff ready for the motion pictures.
On the Sunday after the elder Lewis left, Mumma took her children to church with head held high, and whispered to them to do the same – as they had nothing to be ashamed.
Though Lewis' adult life comprises a small part of the book, it is compelling. This is especially true when, at the age of 50, he decides life is not worth living. The chapter describing his suicide attempt is hard to read, as it is full of details about the attempt and its aftermath.
Interest piqued? Click on the book to buy on Amazon for $19.95, and you can read more about it at www.gasmoneybook.com.
Sharon Gang is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. Prior to her current career, Sharon worked on Capitol Hill in a variety of capacities for several different members of Congress, and also worked as a press secretary to Washington, DC Mayor, Anthony A. Williams.