Monday, June 23, 2014

Brooklyn is a tough place, especially for a teenaged time traveler

A Wish After Midnight
Zetta Elliott's A Wish After Midnight is one I've wanted to read for a long time.  Elliott had a lot of trouble finding a publisher for her book and the story's success is often cited in discussions about diversity in publishing.

A Wish After Midnight is about Genna, a 15-year-old girl living a tough life in Brooklyn.  Her mother struggles to make ends meet, her brother is into drugs, and her sister is rarely home.  Genna works vey hard at school but often feels isolated and lonely.  She'll go to the park near her, throw a penny into the fountain, and wish that she could be anywhere else in the world.  One night, that wish comes true, and she finds herself thrown back in time to Civil War era Brooklyn.

In some ways, this book reminded me of Kindred.  We have a 20th century African-American woman thrown back in time to the 19th century with no explanation of how or why.  And the author uses this as an opportunity to highlight just how difficult life was for Black Americans in the past and bring to life the daily struggles that are usually glossed over in textbooks.

There is a lot of important stuff in here.  Genna brings up so many good points about how people perceive her and how she perceives her world.  For example, when she takes her baby brother for a walk in the park, everyone assumes she is her brother's mother, even though she's only 15.  She struggles a lot with her hair, which she doesn't chemically straighten because she can't afford to.  People think she "talks white" and because of that, believe she thinks she's better than them.  Her mom hates white people because she says they can't be trusted, but Genna thinks that people should be judged on their own merits, not as a group.  That said, people judge her based on where she's from and how she looks all the time.  And her brother is into drugs, and his friends do treat women poorly.

And then when Genna goes back to the 19th century, there's a whole host of other issues.  She repeatedly tells people that she wants to go to college to become a psychologist, which was a big goal for any woman, let alone one that wasn't white.  She also has trouble with all of the authority and power white people have and fights as much as she can to maintain her independence.  And there are friendships she forms that just abruptly end because she moves away and has no control over her schedule and who she can see any more.  And then there is just fear.  I don't think any of us can properly fathom how frightening it must have been to be an African-American woman in the 19th century.

This novel is aimed at young adult readers, and I think it does an excellent job of describing the many ways racism can rear its ugly head.  It's not just in hate crimes and slavery, but it's also in the way we define beauty and the snap judgments we make about people based on appearance, and so many other little things we hardly ever think about.  I don't think this message can be drilled home often enough, so I'm glad that there are books out there that bring it to life so vibrantly.  I also think it's important for people to learn this while they are young, and so I'm glad this book is aimed at a teenage audience.

That said, there are some things about the book that just didn't make sense to me.  For example, Genna travels back to the past and seems to become a different person as she arrives brutally beaten.  But she still has her same hairstyle.  Her new boyfriend also travels to the past in presumably the same way as Genna, but instead of ending up in Brooklyn, he somehow ended up in the South.  And then the whole "romance" around the boyfriend was hard to believe, too, because he was kind of a jerk and they hardly even knew each other but somehow we are meant to believe that even time can't keep them apart and that they'll somehow get back to each other.  And there just isn't a lot of resolution of either Genna's life in the past or in the present - basically, she left a messy situation when she traveled to the past, she leaves a messy situation in the past when she comes back, and we see nothing about how either of these situations turn out.  And one character in the book makes a very clear point about the day being September 10, 2001, which I assume was not done by accident, but September 11 has nothing to do with this story, ever.

So, some issues with continuity and characters got to me, but I still think this book is worth reading because we need to be reminded (constantly, I think) about the subject matter Elliott tackles in this book.  The nuances and different perspectives she gives us on a lot of issues - not just race, but education, family relationships, and much more - are very well-presented, and this book would be a great foundation for an excellent conversation in the classroom or around the kitchen table. 

1 comment:

  1. I read this book years ago. I may have to pick it up again. You wrote another insightful post, Aarti.


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