46 pages 1 hour read

Colson Whitehead

Sag Harbor

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 2009

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Published in 2009, Sag Harbor is the fourth novel by Colson Whitehead. Whitehead refers to this novel as “my autobiographical fourth novel,” as he used some of his childhood summer experiences at Sag Harbor, New York, to write this story. Sag Harbor was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. Whitehead is also the author of The Underground Railroad, which won the Pulitzer Prize, as well as The Nickel Boys, The Intuitionist, Zone One, The Colossus of New York, John Henry Days, Apex Hides the Hurt, and The Noble Hustle. This study guide refers to the Penguin Random House (Anchor Books division) edition of Sag Harbor.

Content Warning: The source material features depictions of racism, sexism, bullying, and vulgar language, as well as parental neglect that includes alcoholism, fat-shaming, and other instances of verbal abuse. This content is replicated only in direct quotes of the source material.

Plot Summary

Sag Harbor chronicles the experiences of Benji Cooper, an anxious, easily embarrassed 15-year-old Black male struggling to fit in. Benji has great hopes at the start of the summer of 1985 that he will be able to transform himself into a much cooler, more assured version of himself. Benji spends most of his summer, as he does every summer, at Azurest, a historically Black beach resort of Sag Harbor, New York. The Cooper family has been coming to Sag Harbor every year for generations, beginning with his grandparents. In 1985, Benji and his brother Reggie are known as the Kids with an Empty House, since their parents rarely come out to Sag Harbor except for a few weekends.

As soon as Benji arrives in Azurest, he wants to get a sense of who else is “out” as well. Every year, the same group of friends meets to spend the summer together. Benji and Reggie first run into NP, one of their buddies, and then gradually, the whole crew of friends arrives in Sag Harbor.

Benji goes into great evocative and often humorous detail explaining how their days are spent, although, as Whitehead has commented himself in his YouTube book promotion video produced by BookVideosTV, “Not a lot happens. It’s more of a slice of life” (8.20.2008). The episodic structure of the book suits the rhythm of summer days, showing Benji hanging out, driving with friends, thinking about girls, listening to music, going to the beach, working at the local ice cream shop, and, in one rather dramatic event, almost getting his eye shot out during a BB gunfight with his friends.

When Benji’s parents come out for a weekend, it soon becomes clear that his father’s drinking and verbal abuse cause trouble for the whole family. The boys find a note that their mother has written down, listing the reasons she should leave their father. Benji does not dwell on this source of tension until the weekends when the parents are at Sag Harbor, but it’s clear Benji is made anxious by his father’s behavior.

Another highlight of the summer is a concert with Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam and U.T.F.O. Music allows Benji to escape from the stresses of home and the anxieties he has about fitting in. At the concert, he dances with abandon, feeling like he fits in with the group of assembled oddballs around him.

Near the end of the summer, Benji appreciates his deep bond to Sag Harbor when he hears a song on the radio that reminds him of the beach house when he was younger. He imagines that time of his life when they were the “perfect family,” though he does realize that he is idealizing the past.

The final event of the summer is the Labor Day party. Benji observes a newcomer, Barry Davis, whose inappropriate behavior escalates until he is throwing patio furniture into the annual bonfire once the adults are no longer supervising. Benji and Reggie leave the party, realizing things have gotten out of control and not wanting to get in trouble. Benji thinks about the upcoming school year, optimistic for great changes in the future although he is still nostalgic for his childhood. 

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