A book that can and does work on so many levels, once I stopped to think about it, I was completely impressed by the author. I never once thought "wow, this is deft writing" while reading it, which says a lot. I read it as a woman who grew up about a decade earlier in a family of all girls. I know very little about young boys, so I was drawn in and somewhat fascinated, often amused and thoroughly satisfied with this book. At its heart, its just a good, solid story of friendship. Two boys, both Celtics fans, living in 1990s Boston, going to middle school, navigating the sixth grade.
The there's the next level, where Dave Greenfield -- privileged son of privileged but very hippie parents -- sees himself in Alex P. Keaton, in that he can't stand the fact that his parents send him to the local public school because "they believe in it," doesn't want to be seen growing vegetables in the urban garden his father has created, is furious that he can't have the newest line of footwear and clothes, and feels highly misunderstood by everyone. Now he has to go to a new school where he's one of two white boys, and the only uncool white boy. Enter Marlon, who doesn't treat Dave the way everyone else treats him, defends Dave on a typically harrowing bus ride home, and finally befriends and in many ways saves him in a very quiet way.
They are from the same general neighborhood but worlds apart. Mar has his own problems and his own dreams. Their friendship is enchanting and challenging, as many interracial friendships are. It's realistically portrayed, complete with the lingo of 1990s, which sounds at once familiar and hilariously old-school.
Race issues are a constant in the story but aren't the centerpiece: that remains the friendship and Dave's growing understanding of his place in the world. It's the story of two boys growing up and being friends with race, class, religion, and even some gender norms banging against them. This is a world where societal pressures to conform and be cool knock against the need to succeed. In other words, it's a highly nuanced portrayal of two twelve year old boys forming a friendship and trying to maintain that friendship over a pressure-filled school year.
Also lingering is the pressure kids are under to perform on standardized tests, and the way that test could determine your chances to go to the better school (which determines your chances for many other things down the line.) I know standardized tests have been troubling in the US for many for years, but the ridiculously unfair nature of it became very clear to me reading this book. I understand my privilege more with every new take on these things. This book gave me yet another chance to investigate what my education and class gave me early in life, especially the stressors I was removed from.
There are a lot of big, thorny issues throughout this book. Sam Graham-Felsen does an arresting job of showing these issues through the eyes of a child, with the simplicity and grace children often have without shying away from any of the ugliness. Yet never once did I feel like I was reading a polemic. The tough stuff is always there, but it rarely overtakes the friendship and never jets into a diatribe. Really quite masterful when I think about it.
I didn't give it five stars because I honestly just didn't feel it in the way I feel some books. This was purely my own personal thing, not anything against this extremely well-written book that raises a slew of important topics in language that never harangues even while it makes us think.