Jewell Parker Rhodes is an award-winning author and this is my first reading of anything by her. Her novel Ninth Ward, the first book in her "Louisiana Girls" trilogy, won the Coretta Scott King Honor Award.
This novel walks lock-step with the Black Lives Matter movement by telling the story of a twelve year old black child who was shot by a white cop. The circumstances of the death are almost a re-telling of the shooting death of Tamir Rice in November 2014. That was the same year that Michael Brown and Laquan McDonald were also shot in August and October.
This is too many controversial shootings in so short a period of time and without question something needs desperately to change. This book, I believe, can constitute a first step in the right direction especially given that it appears to be aimed at a middle-grade readership.
Jerome is the kid shot in the back by a white police officer after he was playing with a toy gun from which the orange tip had been removed making it look much more like a real gun. The story is told from Jerome's perspective now that he has become one of the ghost boys: dead black kids who have suffered a similar fate to him. Among the membership of this ghostly group is Emmett Till. The book is a little disjointed and sometimes a bit hard to follow because it jumps back and forth too much between Jerome 'ghost' and Jerome 'alive and well' in flashbacks.
Sarah is the daughter of the cop who, let's face it, murdered Jerome. I guess technically it was 'involuntary manslaughter' since he didn’t go out there with malice aforethought, intent upon killing him, although the cop seemed to be arguing for 'voluntary manslaughter' because he was farcically claiming it was in self-defense.
I thought it was grossly unfair to show him 'getting away with it', but this seems to happen unsurprisingly, disturbingly often. The stark contrast between Jerome's impoverished life, his poorly-appointed school, and the bullying he suffers every day, and Sarah's privileged white kid existence is starkly drawn. He and Sarah bond (a little too quickly to be frank, but then this is a short novel!), and Sarah gets an education. Jerome does too.
This novel told such a good story and was so well written that I did not want to find fault with it, and I really couldn't except in two areas. The first of these is very minor: there was one quoted speech which was missing a closing quote mark at location 1788 in Amazon's crappy Kindle app where Sarah says 'He's got awards for bravery. Saving lives' The speech continues as a separate quote on the next line. Matching quotes is the bane of all writers' lives. Isn't there an app for that?!
The other complaint is a bit more involved. The author was (and rightly in my opinion) trying to strike a fine balance between the wrong of this child being killed and the right of trying to find a non-violent and understanding way to resolve this ongoing crisis. I felt that certain avenues went sadly unexplored though.
Later in the story, Sarah creates a website, and on it she lists certain facts about this inexcusable slaughter, such as "Did you know black people are shot by cops two and a half times more than white people? But they’re only twelve percent of the population." That to me was a somewhat misleading statistic not because it's not true, but because it's taken out of much larger and very important context. This story doesn't delve deep enough because the issue is far more complex than is depicted here but again this is middle-grade level, so we can't expect everything!
It’s the same problem when Jerome asks a little later if this disaster we see going on every day is because of slavery, and I think there was a missed teaching opportunity here. I think that keeping it this simple doesn't do justice to the middle-graders who are reading this, because while, yes, slavery was a tragic blunder that still echoes today, it’s not the proximate cause.
Black people are shot by cops more often because black people come into contact with cops in taut situations more often than whites, but this higher homicide rate in the black community isn't because they're black, it’s because black people are far more likely to come from impoverished and otherwise deprived backgrounds than are any other race. This in turn leads people into criminal - or at least questionable - activities and that in turn leads them into interactions with police.
Only a complete moron would make assumptions based on a person's skin color (or gender, or religion, and so on). Such assumptions are proven wrong over and over again as more unarmed black people are shot by whites, including by cops, but I don't believe this has to do with slavery.
I believe it has to do with fear induced by misunderstandings and to be frank, sometimes helped along by a certain amount of 'attitude' in the black community about entitlement and privilege, and misplaced notions of respect. The bottom line is that respect has to be earned! You don't get to have it simply because you're person A, or have religion X or skin color Y. And you sure don't deserve it if you have to demand it aggressively from people you don't even know and who certainly do not know you, nor would they want to if you have too much bad attitude! Racism cuts both ways
There was another issue which was unexplored here, which was the gun. This story exactly paralleled the Tamir Rice tragedy. Jerome was playing with a toy gun which had had the orange muzzle cover removed so that it looked real. In a side-by-side comparison, it's easy to tell the fake, but a cop doesn't have that privilege. In a tense situation, when their life may be at dire risk, taking time to accurately determine what you're dealing with could mean the difference between living and dying.
I was sorry the author didn't bring up that fraught issue and the utter stupidity of toy manufacturers in making toy guns look so much like the real thing, especially when the farcical orange barrel tip can be readily removed. Can we not make the whole gun fluorescent orange? Can parents not simply make the assertive decision never to buy realistic-looking weapons for their children? None of the issue of parental responsibility in raising kids to be smarter than Jerome was, or of Jerome's foolish behavior came into the picture and this was a sad omission.
People of all stripes need to be more restrained, more humble, more accommodating, and more forgiving. It would have been nice to have seen these issues explored in more depth in this book. I think the middle-grade reading community can handle complex issues, and I think it does just as much of a disservice to those who have lost their lives to fear and mistrust, and to misunderstanding, and yes, to outright racism, to take a view that's as shallow as skin-deep racism is.
All of that said, I really enjoyed this novel I considered it to be thoughtful and well-written, and to tell a worthy story. I recommend it as a great introduction for young readers to a badly-needed understanding and a long overdue calm and rational dialog.