This is a profound commentary on race, masquerading as a coming of age story of a white boy in a predominantly black middle school in inner city Boston.
Dave has terrible anxiety about navigating 6th grade in his challenged, underfunded public school. He is not only white, but terribly non-“baller” (non-athletic), wears all the wrong clothing, and is afraid to fight physically to defend himself – a proverbial lamb thrown into the lion’s den. His unlikely defender comes in the form of a short, khaki-wearing, quiet, intellectual, black, fellow 6th-grader named Marlon, who steps in and ultimately becomes his only friend. The boys communicate mainly through a common love for the “uncool” Celtics, but they bond on a deeper level of shared temperaments and a common goal of getting into the more prestigious middle school, Latin. While they do grow close, there are still things that Marlon seems to keep to himself. And even as Dave feels a victim as a minority in his school, he also very gradually faces the reality, in his own middle school understanding, how he actually gleans privilege with his white skin that Marlon cannot.
The voice utilized in the telling of this story is powerful and symbolic. It is Dave’s voice yet he has fully adopted the vernacular of his black peers. He is desperately seeking approval from these peers and needs to speak their language, quite literally. This language brings a raw and gritty texture to the story which feels so honest. What are also honest are the characters themselves, as they are real and complex and not stereotypical. Nor are they predictable – and guides the plot toward its both expected and truly unexpected routes.
This novel is a subtly disturbing commentary on our current state of affairs with regard to race. The American “dream,” as Dave’s “Cramps” (not a typo) spells out late in the book, is that if a person works hard enough, they can overcome any obstacle and succeed. This may be true for some, but the truth is that it is not a level playing field and we have to acknowledge this. People of color are denied advancement at every level compared to whites. And although there are many groups who are persecuted — my own (and Dave’s) group included, as the rise of anti-semitic violence has been noted to be staggering over the past few years — there is still not clear, daily aggression and micro-aggression toward these groups as there is toward people of color. The cards are still stacked against them, and we have to stop denying this and start turning this around. And the first step is for white people to be aware of and acknowledge our privilege.
Maybe more can be enlightened by reading this book?