In The Sunshine Crust Baking Factory Stacy Wakefield takes us inside the New York City squatting scene in the mid-90s. Beginning in the summer of 1995, the novel tells the story of Sid, a young woman trying to break into (no pun intended) an insular squatting community and figure out her place within it. In the process she figures out what she’s made of, who her friends are, and what it means to live in community.
Wakefield is intimately familiar with the squatting lifestyle. She lived in squats all across Europe in her early twenties, an experience that led to her first book, the underground 1994 classic Not for Rent in which she interviewed squatters and other subversive activists in the UK. After that she moved to New York and tried, just like Sid, to find a place in the New York City scene at a time when officials were making the city increasingly unfriendly to squatters. As she clarifies in this interview with Vol. 1 Brooklyn however, she didn’t base the narrator of Sunshine on herself, though Sid does have many similar experiences to those Wakefield had in the 90s.
I found The Sunshine Crust Baking Factory at Quimby’s in Chicago last summer and knew it was a book I’d enjoy. I find the related worlds of urban exploration and squatting to be utterly fascinating, so a novel on the topic from an indie publisher I respect (Akashic Books) sounded awesome. The book didn’t disappoint.
This is Wakefield’s first novel, and though the book does lack some polish here and there, she does an excellent job of managing Sunshine‘s large cast of characters. For the most part she keeps them from being one-dimensional caricatures even when we only meet some of them briefly. The only time she missteps here is with the dialogue, which can sometimes feel a bit forced, but for the most part is fine. She deftly captures the temporary-but-sincere connections that happen between individuals in these bohemian settings, never having to make the point explicitly but still perfectly showing us what it feels like to call someone you just met family, to deeply care about the livelihood of someone you hardly know, or to fight for your rights alongside a total stranger, and then to say goodbye to them a short time later.
She also handle’s the story’s pacing and progression well, providing conflict, tension, and satisfaction in a way that never feels formulaic. It would have been easy with this story to easily resolve things with cheap payoffs or to do the opposite and have the book flounder with no direction, but neither happens here. Wakefield gives us a year-long slice of Sid’s life in a way that feels real but still moves this character to a new place in her life by book’s end.
The Sunshine Crust Baking Factory isn’t perfect, but it’s a ton of fun and gives us a fascinating look at a subculture foreign to most of us. Some readers feel their hearts beating faster reading stories of adventure in the wild; I feel this when I read about train-hopping, squatting, urban exploration, direct action, and similar activities. Wakefield’s novel scratched that itch. Check it out if you get a chance.