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Posts Tagged ‘Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award’

When facing large problems of injustice, can one young person feel that her or his actions make a difference? Kekla Magoon’s novel The Rock & the River gives us a deeply personal glimpse of this question, through the eyes of narrator Sam Childs. In 1968 Chicago, Sam’s father is a leading civil rights activist, a friend and follower of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Meanwhile, Sam’s 17-year-old brother Steven (Stick), frustrated by demonstrations amidst continuing injustice, becomes involved with the Black Panthers.

Sam endures an internal struggle. He longs to remain close to his brother, but his brother and father have a falling out. (Mr. Child’s strong position against violence even in self-defense leaves him unable to support the methods of the Panthers). After the death of Dr. King, the violence in the streets provides a twisted reflection of Sam’s internal struggle. A sense of forboding hangs over the book, yet all the while Sam is grasping at hope. Tragedy strikes, yet the final notes of the novel are uplifting.

Sam’s daily life shows the reader many of the challenges facing the African American community of the late 1960s (and, arguably, these problems persist today). There are several instances of police harassment and brutality, as well as racist assumptions and mistreatment by white people. For example, when Sam is browsing in a store, he reaches into his pocket for his money; the shopkeeper verbally abuses him, accuses him of shoplifting. These instances were heartbreaking to read because I know they are based in truth.

The portrait of the Black Panthers is a sympathetic one, but also balanced and unflinching. The reader learns of critical contributions made by the Panthers, such as free breakfast programs and efforts to build clinics. However, the story hints that some party members might have been drawn too quickly toward violence. A few details allude to the lack of gender equity in the distribution of the tasks of organizing. One small wish is that the author’s note, which touches on history, might recommend a couple of reliable, balanced sources on the Black Panthers.

This riveting debut novel, written for a young adult audience, won the 2010 Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Award.

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