Come spring, Philadelphia is planning to read a book, a single book - The Price of a Child, Lorene Cary's novel about a young woman who escapes slavery when her master brings her on a journey to pre-Civil War Philadelphia.
The title was revealed last night after an eight-month search by a committee of literati for one book that could rivet the region in a massive literary group grope. City officials hope that it will spur coffee-shop conversation, street-corner chatter, and all sorts of official programs.
"It's a great gift to this little book," Cary said modestly last night after the president of the Free Library of Philadelphia, Elliot L. Shelkrot, called her to say that Mayor Street had chosen her 1995 novel.
The city is following the lead of other places - notably Chicago, where movers and shakers mobilized an entire region last year around To Kill a Mockingbird.
"This book is the mayor's choice," Shelkrot said. "The purpose of this program is to promote reading and literacy, and to include the entire greater Philadelphia community - the region, not just the city - through reading and discussing a single book. The book is a wonderful story and we want the entire region to be excited about it."
The Free Library will run the "One Book - One Philadelphia" project, Shelkrot said. "The mayor wanted the selection to deal with constitutional issues, and this book is written by a Philadelphian, a wonderful writer, and takes place in Philadelphia."
A dozen-member committee considered possibilities and recommended Cary's book, which also was most often suggested by the public. Street and his wife, Naomi Post, will be taking part in projects involving the book.
Cary spent three years researching her novel, published to glowing reviews. She would fast for periods of time to understand hunger, and pick farm crops to feel the pain of stooping over rows of earth for an entire day. She researched old Philadelphia and walked its streets; learning to play a piano taught her the meaning of acquiring literacy as an adult, as did many slaves.
The work, Cary's first novel and one of her three published books, was hailed in an Inquirer review by Paula L. Woods as a "stunning achievement," a "profoundly moving and evocative work" with "impeccable research and seamless narrative."
The book is available in bookstores and libraries but not in the numbers that will be needed - a bookstore in Chestnut Hill had three copies last week - and Vintage Press, the division of Random House that printed the $14 paperback version, will probably run at least one new printing. Chicago's selection of To Kill a Mockingbird was read by about 40,000 residents.
Shelkrot and other groups - Philadelphia Reads, the Center for Literacy and the school district among them - will be determining, along with bookstores, how many copies they need to sell or lend.
Last night, LuAnn Walther, executive editor of Vintage Books, was focusing on Cary and her work. The selection is "thrilling," Walther said from New York. "She has given so much to Philadelphia that it's really appropriate.
"She's an unusual author in that she gives a lot of time to the community and very often hits us up for books to contribute to worthy causes. She's a joy, wonderful to work with - really a force for literacy in your city."
Cary, 45, who won a $50,000 grant from the Pew Fellowships in the Arts the year The Price of a Child was published, devotes much time to writing programs with children, teaches writing at the University of Pennsylvania, and is the founder of Art Sanctuary, an arts program that brings top African American writers, musicians and poets to perform in North Philadelphia.
She lives in Center City with her husband, Robert C. Smith, a writer who recently was ordained as an Episcopal priest, and their daughters, Laura, 17, and Zoe, 8.
Her book, she says, is an answer to Gone With the Wind, which has fascinated her since she was young. "This is an Underground Railroad story, a story about states' vs. federal rights, a play within a play about freedom - set in the middle of a land of freedom and a city of freedom. This is the kernel of the American story. It's another way of looking at who we are as Americans."