Kekla Magoon–The Rock And The River

The What: Sam Childs is the son of Roland Childs, famed civil rights activist. He has spent his life learning and adhering to his father’s pacifist ideology. His older brother Steve, known as Stick, decides that Roland’s methods will not accomplish the vast changes that must come. He joins the Black Panther movement. Through it, he improves his community, providing breakfast to children who would otherwise go without, and building a clinic for those who suffered from the racist policies of white-run hospitals. Unlike his father, though, Stick does not rule out violence as a way of creating change. Will Sam choose to stay true to what his father has taught him, or will he follow his brother into a different life?

The Good: YA lit desperately needed a book about the Black Panthers. Under-represented and willfully misunderstood in popular discourse, this group was long overdue for an accurate depiction. Many of the descriptions of the group’s goals and activities made me nod with recognition; it was a real delight to read a book about the Panthers that let them speak in their own words (through their precepts). The portrayal is not romanticized, either–in one brief scene, the group’s latent sexism comes through. Magoon does a marvelous job writing family and social relationships, and bringing out the many ways we can wound each other through pride, arrogance, cruelty, unexamined difference, or ignorance. She makes the Civil Rights Movement of the late 1960s feel real and immediate; I can’t remember the last book that has made me cry so hard and so often, nor made me so furious about the injustices that still mar our nation. The historical figures that she writes into the story, including Huey Newton and Fred Hampton, provide good education for those unaware of their accomplishments, and a rewarding reading experience for those familiar with them.

The Meh: Two things stood out. The simpler one is the repeated use of statements like (I’m paraphrasing here) and I knew things would never be the same again. I prefer to see truths like that expressed through showing rather than through telling, as being told that things are different carries less punch than *seeing* how they are now different. The second thing is that as far as I could tell, all but the denouement of the story was really about Stick and his journey from pacifist to Panther. That’s awesome–it’s a fiercely compelling story, and one that I loved reading and will talk up to my teens–but I was frustrated that Sam was narrating it. The story’s heart/guts/metaphor of your choice was with his brother, so hearing those events through Sam created a remove between reader and story that didn’t have to be there.

Hand It To: Nancy Pearl’s character readers, historical fiction readers, anyone interested in the non-pacifist branch of the Civil Rights movement