Friday, July 20, 2012

YA Novel Review: The Rock and the River

The Rock and the RiverThe Rock and the River by Kekla Magoon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sobering narrative combined with detailed facts made me believe Kekla Magoon's YA novel The Rock and the River. The second YA novel that I've read in the past year using the turbulent late 60s as setting, Both Magoon's effort and the other YA novel, One Crazy Summer by Rita Garcia-Williams, pit siblings on the edge of the Black Panther Party. Of course, in each novel, one sibling grows attracted to people and the teaching while another is left, torn, between the world they know and the secrets percolating beneath society's skin.

I used the term "sobering" because at no point did I find the novel a light page-turn or a humorous jaunt through 1968. Worlds collide in this book. They collide with violence...the kind of violence people lived with everyday.  The kind of violence many in our nature struggled to comprehend. The kind of violence that drove an already deep wedge even deeper between the races. This is a serious novel for the YA audience (written on their level)because it treats the history and the reader with eyes wide open. Some text may make people uncomfortable. Kekla Magoon turns the light in a room previously avoided by YA authors: the racial hatred in America.

Without a shadow of a doubt, some kids will find a discomfort in some of the scenes and they will be inspired to ask "why" as they learn of Magoon's interpretation of the history. They may seek those answers on their own or they may ask a teacher or mom, dad, or a friend. But I firmly believe that this book will stir the curiosity of some kids.

In The Rock and the River the police swing batons and pull the trigger against African Americans as sure as putting on and lacing their shoes.

After Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated in the novel we are later told that the assassination was a symbol of white America rejecting King's message. Some struggled with the question, "who would replace King?" For the resistant white populace, literally erasing King from the earth also erased his voice, his message, and his influence of creating a peaceful society and racial harmony. Amid this chaos, pain, and soul-searching, the protagonist Sam watches his older brother, Stick, drift away from the house and the family. Stick becomes a Black Panther much to their father's distress. Their father was one of King's ardent followers, and we read about the family friendship with Martin and Coretta, the family dinners, and the powerful speeches his father often gave.

He was a leader in the community and a powerful influence because he taught people that ideas are more powerful than guns. It would be a long road to finally achieving the dream, but it was the only right and just way.

Once the characters and both worlds are established the character arcs lead them all through violence. Yes the references of violence pile up in the second half of the novel: a stabbing, a couple of officers brutally beat a youth into an inch of his life; Stick sneaks home bloody and with something resembling cracked ribs; Stick hides a gun in the bedroom he shares with his younger brother, Sam; Sam points the gun at someone in self-defense; a teenager is shot and killed by the police; and, of course, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. all line the pages of this story.

Those attracted to the Black Panthers found solace in the fact that it felt like they were doing something. They raised money to feed their community members breakfast or to build a health clinic in their neighborhood--they, in a lot of respects--were taking control. The sadness, and the lesson in the novel, is that so much violence permeated their journey.

The violence is the setting. That is just the way it was and serves as the impetus of so many healthy opportunities to discuss violence, hatred, racism, Martin Luther King, Jr. et al with your students or child. I've read a bunch of YA novels in the past year that include some form of violent conflict. The violence is this book is handled as tastefully and respectfully of youth as I've seen--yet, the sobering narrative makes that violence feel more than what you might read in Harry Potter. Because it was.

A book with as teachable a presence as any I've read over the past year.

View all my reviews


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