The Treasure of Lemon Brown by Walter Dean Myers is a short story written in third-person narrative. It revolves around a young boy named Greg, who is upset about his father’s decision not to allow him to play basketball on account of his poor grades. An encounter with an old man named Lemon Brown changes Greg’s perspective, reminding him about the importance of his relationship with his father, which transcends anything else.
The Treasure of Lemon Brown | Summary
The story begins with the main character, Greg Ridley, sitting at the stoop of his building. The dark clouds reflect his mood as he thinks back to the lecture he received from his father- all because the Principal had sent a letter to their house about Greg’s failing math grade. Greg’s father had to leave school at 13, and he is disappointed that Greg is wasting the opportunities presented to him. Greg wants to play for the community center’s basketball team and even got accepted, and now he wouldn’t be able to. His father’s condition was the status of his next report card, which turned out not to be up to par.
As a storm begins to brew, Greg decides against going home immediately, despite knowing the scolding he would receive for it. Instead, he heads to an old, abandoned tenement where impromptu checker tournaments were often held. The door is slightly ajar, so he pushes it open only to see that it is completely dark. He sits for a while, thinking about his father, who worked extremely hard to pass the test to become a hospital worker, and whom Greg is very proud of. At this time, he feels a movement and realizes he is not alone in the warehouse.
Suddenly, an old man named Lemon Brown threatens Greg not to try anything, for he has a razor that could “cut him up”. Greg is appropriately terrified but calms himself down enough to respond. They exchange names and Greg finds out that Lemon Brown stays in that warehouse. Brown asks whether he’s one of the “bad boys” looking for his treasure, and when Greg says that if Lemon Brown has one, he’s not looking for it, Brown tells him that every man has a treasure. As their conversation continues, Lemon Brown reveals that he used to sing the blues before he hit some hard times. He used to have a son, “knotty-headed”, just like Greg.
They hear a noise, hiding immediately when a group of thugs enter. They are looking for Lemon Brown’s treasure, and have been frequenting the warehouse for the past few days for that very purpose. As they shone the light, almost finding Lemon Brown, Greg howled to divert the attention, thereby allowing Brown to tackle the thugs and chase them away. It is then that Lemon Brown shows Greg his treasure- some old newspaper clippings and a worn harmonica. The clippings showed Lemon Brown performing the blues in various places almost fifty years ago, praising him as the hit of the show. Lemon Brown explains that he used to make enough money to feed his wife and son well, until his wife died and his son, Jesse, went to live with his aunt. He grew up to become a soldier and was killed in war. When Lemon Brown went home and got the letter, he was also sent all the things Jesse used to carry- those old clippings of his father and a fiddle. It touched Brown’s heart that those clippings of him were so important to his son, and they became his treasure.
When Greg asks whether this treasure holds more value than a pipe, Lemon Brown says that a man’s greatest treasure is what he can pass down to his child. It is after this that they part ways, Lemon Brown assuring him that he’d be okay. Greg decides against telling his father about the old man. Instead, when he rings the bell to his house, he thinks about the upcoming lecture he would surely receive. This time, he smiles.
The Treasure of Lemon Brown | Analysis
Walter Dean Myers was an African-American writer best known for his children’s books and young adult fiction. He wrote from experience, especially about his struggles in his teenage years, and hoped to show troubled teens the importance of reading. The Treasure of Lemon Brown is written in third-person using simple language, focusing mainly on dialogue and interaction. Myers employs imagery, symbolism and metaphors to establish the main motif of the story, with the main themes being parental love and relationships. Here, it is especially specific to a father-son bond. The context of certain parts of Myers’s life also sheds light on the emotion behind moments of the story.
The story begins with a powerful imagery- “The dark sky, filled with angry, swirling clouds, reflected Greg Ridley’s mood”– where Myers employs the incoming thunderstorm to emphasize Greg’s stormy mood. This use of pathetic fallacy captures the emotion of irritation, unhappiness and general despondency. The reason he is in such a mood is his father’s lecture. Descriptions such as “halo of crinkly white hair”, and “moon eyes” are also imagery that adds to the vivid visualization of the reader. Myers’s use of adjectives and imagery to describe Lemon Brown also adds to his characterization. Often, physical descriptions indicate aspects of one’s personality or lifestyle- Lemon Brown being “heavily wrinkled” hints at not just old age but also a certain weariness that comes with difficult life experiences. The “dirty coats piling his smallish frame” tells readers that Brown maybe has not eaten for a long time, nor has he had a chance to shower and wash his clothes. From this, we are able to understand that Lemon Brown is homeless. The fact that Brown has “gnarled fist” also indicates heavy physical usage, owing to his constant harmonica playing during his youth.
The line “I had to leave school when I was thirteen,” his father had said, “that’s a year younger than you are now. If I’d had half the chances you have, I’d…”” is based on Myers’s own life. He was very good at writing in school, but eventually had to drop out before finishing. His teacher told him to never stop writing, and it was heeding her words that he continued doing so- in fact, at one point, he wrote at night while working at a construction site in the day. Greg’s father’s frustration about his son wasting the opportunities he worked hard to give him, despite not being able to finish school himself, is a message to all the children whose parents struggled to give them what they have. It serves as a reminder of the difficulty the parents went through, and their wish for their children to have more than they did. This story was published in 1983, after Myers had his son, so we may assume that he was drawing from his experience of a father who struggled in his own childhood, and is now able to provide for his son. After all, Myers, too, never finished school.
The overarching themes are parental love and familial relationships. The story begins with Greg recounting a lecture from his father, and feeling upset about his father’s words. Myers uses Greg’s interaction with Lemon Brown to give Greg a new perspective to his father’s views. Interestingly, it is done in a subtle manner. There is no scolding or second lecture, or any very obvious lesson presented to Greg to alter his opinion. It was done gradually over the time spent with Lemon Brown, by understanding his life story and connecting that to his own bond with his father. By doing this in a tenuous way, the lesson is not overbearing, but instead, put across in a skillful and fruitful manner. Myers’s pacing and genuine tone aids this- as he relates to what he is writing, there is an added layer of depth.
Lines such as “I used to have a knotty-headed boy just like you.” and “Him carrying it around with him like that told me it meant something to him. That was my treasure, and when I give it to him he treated it just like that, a treasure.” are direct representations of these themes. Now, fifty years after Lemon Brown was a hit act as a blues singer, his memories center around his son.
“What else a man got ‘cepting what he can pass on to his son, or his daughter, if she be his oldest?”- this dialogue is the one which caused a turning point in Greg’s mindset. It shows that love, family and relationships are worth far more than money. It also helps Greg realize that his father is not trying to restrict him, and has no ill intentions by not letting him play basketball. Just like what Brown said, a father’s greatest joy is doing something well so that he can pass it on to his child. Greg’s father, despite not being able to finish school, worked extremely hard and cleared the exam to become a hospital worker. It is because of that that Greg is able to go to school. More than money, his father was able to provide him with education, opportunities and stable home life. Greg realizes then that he is not using the opportunities his father put so much effort into creating for him.
Here, Lemon Brown’s harmonica represents his glorious youth- being able to travel, perform and receive praise from so many different audiences is a shining period that will not return to him. It is symbolic of good memories. It is important to note that his son had been carrying a fiddle with him during war, which is another connection between the father and son- they each have a musical instrument which they hold close.
The newspaper clippings of Lemon Brown symbolize the relationship between him and his son, and familial relations in general. To Brown, it is not only a memory of his late son, but also a reminder that his son loved him, for he had carried around the clippings during the war. It is symbolic of a love that transcends distance. This is a stark contrast to what the thugs think it is. The thugs likely assume the treasure to be money, gold, or something of financial value. Brown, on the other hand, calls his objects a treasure because of their sentiment. This contrast in perspectives between the thugs and Lemon Brown indicates how different their life experiences have been, and also hints at the difference between them and Greg. Greg never attempted to take the treasure even before knowing what it was, and on seeing it, he did understand its value- going as far as to think further about his own relationship with his father. This presents the hope that Greg will grow up to be aware and genuine, as he sees the importance of bonds beyond money. He leaves the warehouse with a mindset to better understand his father, knowing that their relationship is more important than basketball or studies.
The Treasure of Lemon Brown | About the Author
Walter Dean Myers, born in 1937, was an African-American writer who won several awards for his work. He loved reading from a young age, and his talent for writing was recognized by his teacher in high school, who told him never to stop writing no matter what. He never completed high school, and joined the army when he was 17. After his return, he struggled with finding himself and finding a job when he remembered his teacher’s words- this spurred him to write again. He started submitting to men’s magazines, and his reach grew from there. His aim was to write for his past self, who was very troubled, and in turn reaching other young children who were just like him. Myers passed away in 2014.