The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk (Review)

March 29, 2012

Book cover for "The Mayor of Castro Street" by Randy Shilts.Title: The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk

Author: Randy Shilts

Narrator: Marc Vietor

Publication Year: 1982

Pages: 400 (audio length: 15 hours 58 minutes)

Genre: Non-Fiction, Audiobook

Source: Audiobook version, purchased from Audible.com

From the cover:

Known as “The Mayor of Castro Street” even before he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Harvey Milk’s personal life, public career, and final assassination reflect the dramatic emergence of the gay community as a political power in America. It is a story full of personal tragedies and political intrigues, assassinations at City Hall, massive riots in the streets, the miscarriage of justice, and the consolidation of gay power and gay hope.

For at least the last 5 years, I’ve wanted to learn more about Harvey Milk. I was born after he died, and I lived in small, rural (and conservative) town in Canada, so I hadn’t heard about him at all until I was an adult. And even then, I only heard his name in passing – even within the queer community. But I heard it just often enough to be curious, and wanted to learn more … though it’s taken me quite a while to actually get around to doing so.

Now that I’ve read The Mayor of Castro Street, though, I’m glad that I did. Shilts has done an exceptional job of gathering mountains of information about Harvey Milk’s life, including his life before moving to San Francisco and ultimately becoming involved in politics. I definitely felt, after reading the book, that I understood an awful lot about his life and particularly his career. While I’m sure that I would have more well-rounded knowledge if I continued to read more books about him, I have to say that I definitely feel like The Mayor of Castro Street is a great primer on the “life and times of Harvey Milk”, just like it purports to be.

One thing that I noticed while listening to the audiobook was that there were a few sections where it seemed like I had heard them before. I think basically what happened is that Shilts would decide to repeat something he had already written, in order to give context to a new piece of information. It didn’t happen all that often, but I did notice it from time to time.

Slightly less important, I felt like there was an overarching emphasis on Milk’s eventual assassination, even before the point in the book where he had entered a life in politics. I understand that the book was written after his death, and thus obviously from the perspective of looking back on his life and seeing how he got where he did … but still! I think it could’ve been a slightly better biography if it wasn’t constantly reminding us about Milk’s eventual end and just let us learn more about him and enjoy the story. In fact, it might have been more impactful if the re-telling of Harvey’s death had come about naturally, because it would have changed the narrative in much the same way that the real-life assassination shocked so many people.

Overall, though, I really enjoyed reading The Mayor of Castro Street. Going into it without much knowledge of Milk beyond his position as a figure of the gay rights movement, it was a rather interesting and informative read. I definitely recommend it to anyone interested in the queer movement, American politics, or the history of politically motivated assassinations in the United States.

Rating:

One Comment

  • Jerry Pritikin March 29, 2012 at 10:28 pm

    Before the book, Randy Shilts outlined it in Christopher St. Magazine. I was a friend of Harvey and Randy, and my image of Harvey is in the book. I helped Randy on one chapter, and recommend that it be called “Orange Tuesday”, the moniker I gave to that historic day.(6/7/77)

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