This week I read All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely.
It was recommended by a colleague, but also it fit nicely into my “book by two authors” category for the 2017 Pop Sugar Reading Challenge. Okay, fine, yes I do confess that I selected the book because of the two-author thing and also because the cover looked interesting. Okay? There I said it, I judged the book by its cover. In fact, confession time, I do that a lot (I know, many people have told me never to do it but I’m hopelessly flawed- what do you want from me?).
Also, can I just add that I’m sick. Granted, I have a cold, so in the grand scheme of things, “sickness” actually refers to me feeling hopelessly sorry for myself (what is it about a cold that does that?). I’m adding this point in so that you know that I did cry at the end of this book, but it’s not because I’m an overly emotional type; but rather because it was a good emotional ending at a time when I was feeling particularly vulnerable.
Okay, enough of my plight, let’s get to the book.
Kiely and Reynolds write the story of two boys, one a young black man, the other a young white man. Both boys go to the same school but they are not close enough to be friends. Rashad is a young man who (like many young men) has teenage issues relating to finding a girlfriend, dealing with parental hang-ups and trying to succeed at school. He is in his school’s ROTC program and has a close group of friends who have their own aspirations, teenage problems and hang-ups.
Likewise, Quinn also has similarly teenager angsty issues, particularly after the death of his father in the line of duty and particularly with the pressures associated with living up to his father’s all-American hero status. The story starts with these two boys and their similarly relatable lives.
However, the crux really happens when Rashad is accused of stealing from a local convenience store. From Rashad’s point of view the incident is an innocent case of mistaken intentions combined with a prejudiced assumption that he was in the wrong. However, a police officer on scene takes things brutally far and Rashad ends up in a situation of “he said, he said” not unlike that which we have all heard on our TVs. The cop on site beats Rashad in an attempt to ‘subdue’ a would-be criminal.
Quinn is a witness to the scene. The major turning point for him? The officer who is Rashad’s worst nightmare happens to be Quinn’s best friend’s brother, and an important male role-model in his life. Police Officer Paul is Quinn’s equivalent to an older mentor, someone who never left Quinn’s side after the death of his father. Paul is the guy that imparted life experience onto Quinn. And Paul is the guy who has Quinn’s back.
This story is about the fall-out after this brutal incident. It records the devastation to both Rashad and Quinn but also to their families. It highlights the divide in understanding and at time the lack of empathy for each other. It highlights the racial issues that become all-to-often apparent when we see such things happen in real life. It is a beautifully truthful story about the people behind such incidents. And it shows us that for every name of every person involved, there is a story.
The most poignant thing about this novel which came to light for me was that Rashad and Quinn learn something about themselves and the people around them. Both young men come to terms with their own inner demons. They have to face uncomfortable truths and eventually work toward the knowledge that they must go against the grain to do what they believe is right.
This is a book of moral “what ifs,” and one that directs the story to an understanding between the two boys, and also between larger groups of people who unite for a similar cause.
It is a message that we all need to hear. The book pays homage to the various movements that are now working their way towards recognition of the brutality that is often seen in our society. However, it is not overtly political one way or the other to specific organizations. In short, the book gives us a social commentary on the very things that are currently happening for many young people today.
Without going too much further into the plot, there were two tear jerky moments in the book to look out for, both towards the end. One when Rashad’s dad appears on the steps of the precinct, (this is a turning point given the plot twist that happens earlier in the novel). The second is a quote that made the hairs stand up on my neck (page 296):
The list of names went on.
And as I heard them, my mind sort of split in two- one part listening, and the other picking up the ideas I’d been kicking around in my head all day: Would I need to witness a violence like they knew again just to remember how I felt this week? Had our hearts really become so numb that we needed dead bodies in order to feel the beat of compassion in our chests? Who am I if I need to be shocked back into my best self?
This is a question that perhaps we all should take a moment or two to ask ourselves.
Keep an eye out for this book. Cleverly written and well divided between the two authors, the story evolves through the words and deeds of both characters and therefore is a page-turner.
The plot focuses on a very difficult topic to confront and address, particularly for this age group, but Reynolds and Kiely have created a very relevant and moving text on an issue that does need to be recognized.
Give this a read.