Power of Memory: Avi’s “Something Upstairs” and Our Responsibility to Remember


“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to relive it”  Santayna

Avi opens up his young adult historical fiction novel, Something Upstairs, with this fitting quote.

A geek for local literature,  I am glad I finally stumbled on this book ( while, umm… subbing 5th grade).

Providence is small but is layered with a complex, ever emerging history ( Native American resistance, African slave trade, several waves of immigrants)  So, it’s always exciting for me to read something set in Providence. I geek walking around being like “that’s the street so and so was chased down in chapter 10”  

You know that’s cool.  Dont front.

Back when I was teaching 9th grade, I created my own local history curriculum (cue Don LaFountaine voice):  which took my students on an epic and mysterious journey through the hidden history of Providence… There were thrills and chills! and secret slave transportation tunnels!!

Well, anyways, I could go and on about the importance of teaching history of marginalized people to their still struggling decedents …

Old Providence underground  tunnel-was it just used for trains…?hmmmm...

Old Providence underground tunnel-was it just used for trains…?hmmmm…

But, I think its also important because our memories and interpretation of history help shape our future.

Something Upstairs-give or take...

Something Upstairs-give or take…

The evil time traveling slave owner turned librarian says:   “After all, I am a historian, a guardian of memory, memories which I choose and shape. When I arrange things as I want them the newspaper story also changes.  You read the revised version.”     YES!!!

So, who ever controls the past also controls the present interpretation AND the future! This is why we all need to be historians-of our personal truths, our family history, our planet’s history– this is our collective responsibility.

go ahead, snatch that young adult lit from a 5h grader...

go ahead, snatch that young adult lit from a 5th grader…

“People, said Caleb scornfully, “abide by the memories they chose.”  Oh yes, Caleb was scornful because he didn’t trust that Kenny would choose the memory he needed to be set free… what memories would you choose?

What the Providence River looked like back in Caleb's day...

What the Providence River looked like back in Caleb’s day…

I believe it is our responsibility ( as teachers/parents/people in the world), to guide young people towards more balanced discourse on history and to encourage critical thinking. (Remember when that was an education goal more vital than standardized tests?)  This is vital for our viewing of   history in general, as well as remembering our own personal history (which is on my mind as a craft my memoir…)

ooo spooky house

ooo spooky house

While expressing ones side of a conflict ones reflection on childhood trauma or events…having power to choose and shape one’s own history, is vital.

oh yes, we still have the "plantations" in the our state name...

oh yes, we still have the “plantations” in the our state name…

At the closing of the novel, Kenny asks,  “do you really think he’s free yet?” “I mean, really free?”

Good question. What makes us “really” free?


Works like “Something Upstairs” remind me how important it is to abide by memories we choose, and to choose memories consciously.

With imperilalism, the 1st step to claiming was naming- whether that was renaming streets in Palestine, or carving roads in Rhode Island, naming was usually the precursor to colonizing.

And now?

Its our right to take back our ability to name- our land, our experiences, our history.

Providence Journal's series on the RI slave trade

Providence Journal’s series on the RI slave trade

When will Caled truly become free? When we reclaim our right to remember.

The real Tillinghast's grave in Providence...

The real Tillinghast’s grave in Providence…


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