Tag Archives: Racism

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger

Ordinary GraceOrdinary Grace by William Kent Krueger

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Beautifully written with achingly wrought characters, it’s hard to conceive of this novel as a murder mystery because at its heart is is a coming of age story for two unremarkable midwestern boys in the summer of 1961. Drawn more than told by 13 year-old Frank, or rather 50 year-old Frank reflecting on the disastrous events of the summer he reckoned with racial prejudice, class, bullying, sex, passion, grief, murder, miracles, and faith and was thrust into adulthood. Krueger’s descriptions of summer in Minnesota in the 1960s are so evocative you can hear the chirping of the crickets and taste the Kool-Aid on your tongue, all the while turning pages swiftly to discover the next foreshadowed disaster to befall this charming small town. Echoes of To Kill a Mockingbird are felt here, with the strong sense of place, the flawless moral bearing of Frank’s father, Pastor Nathan Drum, and the loss of innocence that comes from eavesdropping on adult conversations that are not meant for children’s ears. This one will stick with me for a long time to come. ~ Ms Dimmick

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Student Review: Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools by Jonathan Kozol (reviewed by Alexander G)

Savage Inequalities: Children in America's SchoolsSavage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools by Jonathan Kozol
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What would you do if your kids went to overpopulated schools with insufficient teachers, books, and in some cases, classrooms to learn? In Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities, Kozol travels from New York City to San Antonio to investigate this travesty. His findings bring out the de facto racism that is ingrained in the United States and reveal that even after the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling in 1954, American public schools are still separate, and unequal. Kozol does an excellent job of explaining how US public schools contribute to the wage gap, racism, and the unfair socioeconomic divide in American society.

The massive wage gap that exists in the US starts with public schools. Kids believe that school doesn’t matter because of the sparse amount of teachers and resources in these schools. Without school, it is much harder for children to succeed, which leads them to drop out and work at a low paying job or go to prison. While visiting a kindergarten classroom in Chicago, Kozol makes the statement that “by junior year of high school… 14 of these 23 boys and girls will have dropped out of high school… four of these kids will go to college… one of those four may graduate from college”(55). These children are not given any opportunities from the beginning of their education. Lack of achievement contributes to the expanding wage gap in the United States because it creates a cycle for children from lower income families to stay below the poverty line. Without an education, these inner city children have no way to make it out of their low-income neighborhood.

Systematic racism results from underachieving public schools. Most of these schools Kozol visits are almost all Black and Latino. Many of these kids and their families struggle to pay bills and put food on the table. The parents are busy with jobs and other worries; children are given no attention and are left on their own, which can lead to bad decisions. According to the New York City Department of Corrections, “90 percent of the male inmates of the city’s prisons are former dropouts of the city’s public schools”(144). Many African Americans are stereotyped as negative roles in society because of a lack of opportunities, such as a poor education. In the early to mid-1900s, many minority groups were put into impoverished neighborhoods with high crime rates and bad schools. Because these school systems have been notorious for their dropout rates, these people are given no way out, which has led to generations of failure for some families. Kozol does a great job of connecting these social injustices and the education system, which can change opinions and preconceptions of some people, and educate the public about the origins of these oppressing stereotypes.

Kozol also points out that most white people are given a free pass in education since they tend to live in more suburban communities. While this does not hold true for all white people, the majority of high achieving schools contain a predominately white student population. They are sheltered from the hardships that other people in inner city schools have to face, and this only contributes to helping white people succeed instead diversifying the field of success. Predominately white schools succeed while predominately black and Latino schools fail “offers symbolism that protects the white society against the charges of racism”(236). These schools are majority white, which shelters the kids from systematic racism because they aren’t exposed to other socioeconomic backgrounds nor a diverse group of races.This takes away the opportunities that could be given to underprivileged children that would help them get out of their unfortunate circumstances. With a “divided and unequal education system that is still in place nearly, four decades after Brown”(236) schools remain separate from each other, and with many left with different classrooms, teachers, and dropout rates. The differences between majority white and majority black schools are devastating and give affluent whites advantages they don’t deserve. Kozol explains the huge gap between the two types of public schools, and to reach equality, the public education problem must be addressed. Kozol suggests that there should be more integration in suburban schools and that major cities, such as New York, should prioritize funding their public education system. He also notes that charter schools (which were brand new at the time) can also give children in low-income neighborhoods a much better education.
American public schools are great where the wealthy live, but give those in poverty and poorer communities no opportunities and no resources to make them successful. The divide in the public school system has contributed to racism and must be fixed to improve low-income communities. Kozol does a fantastic job of explaining this issue and giving reasoning of why schools must be set, which is why Savage Inequalities is a great read if you want to learn more about social injustice and the problems with education in the United States. ~ Student: Alexander G.

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Student Review:Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee (reviewed by Joseph S.)

Go Set a WatchmanGo Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, taking place while civil rights and political tension changed the South, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch returns to Maycomb and sees her old home in a new light. At the age of 26, Scout has been living in New York City, trying to become more independent from her family. On her annual visit to see Atticus, her aging father, Scout sees something that makes her question everything she knows about her beloved home. Go Set a Watchman covers the differences in beliefs on racial equality between New York City, Scout’s new home, and Maycomb, Scout’s old home.

Go Set a Watchman was a highly anticipated book when it first came out. Many people loved To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s previous novel, and wanted more of it. Although To Kill a Mockingbird was an amazing book and you should read it (you have probably read it by now if you are looking at this review), Lee’s new novel is not worth the read for the most part. Not only was it incredibly boring, but the narrative clumsily switched between first and third person. Recommending this book to anyone is difficult because even though it was bad, it could interest someone. Those who are curious to know why it was so bad should read the book and decide for themselves. However, anyone who did not enjoy To Kill a Mockingbird, and those who absolutely loved To Kill a Mockingbird will most likely be disappointed. Student: Joseph S.

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Student Review: A People’s History of American Empire, by Howard Zinn (reviewed by Dan B.)

A People's History of American EmpireA People’s History of American Empire by Howard Zinn

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As we all know, America is the land of the free, a land of wonder and pure accomplishments. It is the only country in the world that has never done wrong without a good reason. Or at least that’s what our political leadership wants us to think. In reality, America is a country like any other. It does good and it does bad, and if you’ve ever decided to read one of Howard Zinn’s books, you’re definitely not reading for the good. But that does not mean this book is bad. In fact, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of American Empire is a thought-provoking collection of some of America’s darkest secrets.

Journeying through its past, readers will learn of the accomplishments America does not want you to know, and the reasons for which said deeds have been pushed so far out of our view. Illustrated in the simplistic design of Mike Konopacki’s brilliant cartoons, every page is rich with flavor and emotion. The book starts with its training wheels ripped off, with Zinn putting his views at the forefront of this text, and they are quite interesting.

With our story starting at the beginning of the 21st century, we find Zinn outraged by the 9/11 bombings of the time, but not for the reasons one would normally expect. He didn’t curse the bombers or scream for some war of revenge. No he screams for a different reason altogether. He screams instead at the United States’ refusal to learn from their past. He screams, in all the honesty of his mind, that, “[The U.S. Government] learned nothing, absolutely nothing, from the [war and terrorism] of the 20th century!” (3). Zinn, of course, was commenting not on the bombings themselves, but instead the address President Bush would later give, an address that promised the bombing of the very same terrorists who bombed us. And with that, the horrors of the 20th century started once more.

“But what horrors?” You may ask. “World War 1? 2? Afghanistan?” You ask again, and while you are correct in some ways, you still misunderstand. It’s not the wars themselves that caused the 20th century’s terror. No, it was much more. The true horror of the 20th century was caused by its leaders. In particular, it was its drunk leaders. Leaders so drunk on their own power and ambitions that they would do anything to climb the social ladder. Massacres and sabotage of innocent populations was but a small fraction of their misdeeds. They were the true horrors of the 20th century, and if you wish to learn more, about America, about secrets or about the 20th century in general, then this book is for you. But don’t take my word for it. Read it for yourself and discover A People’s History of American Empire. ~Student: Dan B.

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Student Review: The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, by Sherman Alexie (reviewed by Nick M.)

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in HeavenThe Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie, the reader is brought into the world of the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington State. Through a compilation of short stories, Alexie shows the reader the hardships of the forgotten, neglected tribes that used to populate the United States. This collection illustrates the struggle faced by Native Americans accurately, but its change in narration and inconsistent timeline make it very hard to follow. At many points in this book, it is very unclear as to who is narrating and when the event took place in relation to the other stories. In addition to the narration and timeline being unclear, the text in general can be quite confusing. Sherman Alexie’s collection focuses on the guised meaning rather than the literal meaning of the text. These subtleties and lack of storyline deterred me and made it highly difficult for me to relate to the main characters, Junior and Victor. Themes also play an immense role in shaping the various storylines written throughout the book. Two of the main themes include alcoholism and identity, each represented within the two main characters, Victor and Junior. The world surrounding Victor becomes so bleak that he reverts to alcohol, as a way of escaping reservation life. Even as a child, Victor struggles to fit in, wearing “horn rimmed” “U.S. Government glasses”(171) and having the “other Indian boys [chase] [him] from one corner of the playground to the other.” (171) Junior also experiences similar struggles, finding his identity, and breaking an awful drinking habit. Both Victor and Junior fall in love with white women, and are both left by these women. Both try to embrace the world outside the Indian Reservation and fail, exemplifying the struggle Native Americans have in finding an identity. Ultimately, I do not recommend to book to anyone. The lack of plot and storyline make the stories very difficult to follow and comprehend. If you enjoy over analyzing ambiguous text and spending more time interpreting rather than reading, this book is for you. ~ Student: Nick M.

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Student Review: The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, by Sherman Alexie (reviewed by Matthew M.)

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in HeavenThe Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In this compilation of short fiction stories, Sherman Alexie shows the sempiternal hardships and difficulties that Native Americans endure. The Native Americans in this book are located on Spokane Reservation, Washington State. Through the book’s depiction of this multi tribal society, the reader is presented with the conflicts and strife the Spokane people face. Alcoholism and discrimination run rampant in the lives of these Native Americans, who endlessly try to find their identity amidst a nation that wants to take it away. While The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven thoroughly illustrates the difficult lives of those living on the reservation, I did not enjoy the book. The narration is neither clear nor systematic, and the stories are not placed in chronological order. This makes it difficult to follow each character’s sequence of events. Alexie also focuses more on themes and symbols than building a storyline, which sometimes left me wondering about the specificity of each character’s events and actions. While Alexie’s style grants an ample opportunity for profound analysis, it does not yield to an emotional connection with Alexie’s two central characters, Victor and Junior. From beginning to end, these two characters battle with identity, a profound theme in the story. Toward the beginning of the book, Victor moves into Seattle to try and adapt to American society. In the end, he moves back to Spokane Indian Reservation after constantly being judged through stereotypes of a typical Native American. Junior also experiences problems fitting in with society. After having a child out of wedlock with a caucasian in college and being discriminated against by his teacher, he does not know where he belongs. When choosing between school and the reservation, he states, “It’s a matter of choosing my own grave” (242). Victor and Junior struggle to find their identity because they do not fit any societal norm. As a result, they live in perpetual exile. While this book effectively uses these two characters to convey the theme of identity, the lack of plot, action, and structure is my reason for giving it two stars out of five. Unless you want to deeply examine and analyze a book with profuse, opaque content, I suggest you leave this one on the library’s bookshelf. ~ Student: Matthew M.

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Student Review: Nisei Daughter, by Monica Itoi Sone (reviewed by Helen H.)

Nisei DaughterNisei Daughter by Monica Itoi Sone

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Everyone knows that during WWII, Germany’s treatment on its prisoners were gruesome but what about the other side? In history class we constantly hear the descriptive horrid conditions that the Germans and Japanese inflicted on its enemies but we never hear about how America treated their prisoners during WWII. What kind of treatment did the people in America who had German or Japanese blood in them received? In the novel, Nisei Daughter by Monica Sone, it gives a small glimpse on the difficulty of dealing with two cultures; especially when those two cultures go to war against each other. Monica always had a hard time balancing her Japanese heritage and being an American. Throughout the novel we see how her family struggled against discrimination when they were renting houses or getting jobs. That discrimination and racism worsen when Pearl Harbor happened. Being Japanese, Monica was viewed as an enemy by a place she called her home. The government striped her of all her possessions and forced her and her family into camps where the people suffered from the harsh weather to food poisoning. Many may be shocked that this happened in America but it just shows that we need to know more about America and its ugly secrets. This is a great book for showing the journey of finding a balance within yourself between two cultures that are very different from each other. If you like books on assimilation and 2nd generation immigrants then other books you may be interested in are Bento box in the Heartland by Linda Furiya and Daughter of the Samurai by Etsu Inagaki Sugimoto. If you are more interested in struggles and the injustice America had on its minority then I would recommend To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and The Land by Mildred D. Taylor. ~ Student: Helen H.

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Student Review: What is the What, by Dave Eggers (reviewed by Gabi R.)

What Is the WhatWhat Is the What by Dave Eggers

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What is the What a novel written by Dave Eggers is a personal account of Valentino Achak Deng, a Lost Boy. The radical Islamists, the Mujahedeen soldiers, forced Achak from his home in Sudan during the 1980’s. This resulted in the killing of most of his family and friends in his village. He and thousands of other boys were forced to travel to Ethiopia, where they could get aid and live in the refugee camps. Many boys formed groups to help protect each other, as they encountered lions, crocodiles, Mujahedeen soldiers, diseases, dehydration, and starvation. The journey through the harsh, never-ending desert killed almost all the Lost Boys. Achek saw many boys fighting over small bits of food, as their survival depended on it. “I spent years in a refugee camp in Ethiopia, and there I watched two young boys, perhaps twelve years old, fighting so viciously over rations that one kicked the other to death.” (p. 13).

The narrative switches between Achak’s life traveling from Sudan to Ethiopia and his life in Atlanta, Georgia. Many Lost Boys came to America to get an education and hoped to earn enough money to be able to go back and start a New Sudan. In America, Achak had to find work and learn how to drive a car. He had to learn how to find his way and learn how to assimilate into American culture and society. “We were thinking of the kinds of work we would do in the United States. We thought of school there, many of us imagining that we would, within weeks, be studying at American universities.” (P. 521). Achak as well as many other Lost Boys were excited to be traveling to America and finally start an education at a university. They kept imagining their new life and couldn’t wait to finally fulfill their dreams. While in the refugee camps and coming to America, Achak realized in life you have to go for your dreams and don’t sit back and wait. “If I ever fall in love again, I will not wait to love as best as I can. We thought we were young and that there would be time to love well sometime in the future. This is a terrible way to think. It is no way to live, to wait to love.” (P. 353). After watching so many people close to him starve and die, he realized that he needs to make the most of his life and take full advantage of all the opportunities that America has to offer.

As a child of immigrants from South Africa, I felt that I could connect with Achak about how he had to get used to a totally new life. For both my parents and Achak, America was viewed as a place of hope and future. Achak’s main goal of coming to the United States is to receive an education, while my parents came because they wanted more security and they thought that America would be a perfect place to start a family.

If you like a novel about struggling and hardship and then eventual triumph, this is the perfect novel for you. It may seem long and drawn out, but when you reach the end; you come to admire their journey. What these boys went through is real, it is true; they worked through all these adversities and succeeded. ~ Student: Gabi R

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Student Review: When I Was Puerto Rican, by Esmeralda Santiago (reviewed by Charles P.)

When I Was Puerto RicanWhen I Was Puerto Rican by Esmeralda Santiago

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For this review, I read the memoir When I Was Puerto Rican by Esmeralda Santiago. The book chronicles the author’s struggle to find her identity as a result of constant change in her environment. Esmeralda began her life in Puerto Rico as the oldest of numerous children and her early life was unstable due to moving often and a lack of stability in her parents’ relationship. The central theme in Esmeralda’s journey is a search for her true identity. Her constant internal struggle is summarized by a quotation following her relocation to America: “For me, the person I was becoming when we left was erased, and another one was created.” Esmeralda informs the reader that she is shaped by her environment, rather than a circumstance where she shapes her environment. Esmeralda is not confident with her identity, so she tries to fit into a mold to appease others rather than trying to be herself. Esmeralda is the main character and also the most riveting one, partly because of her uneasiness with technicalities that most would not stop to think about. For example, she obsesses over how she speaks the English language, down to intricacies of pronunciation that an English-born speaking person would not think to ponder. Throughout the memoir, I thoroughly enjoyed her analysis of such small details. In conclusion, I gave this book 4 out of 5 stars because it opened up my eyes to new ideas about finding happiness. Liking oneself is more important than the affection of others, and that “fitting in” isn’t determined by others but by belief in one’s own identity. I highly recommend this memoir to anyone that feels that they don’t belong because it provides a story of how one overcame odds to be happy with their own identity. ~ Student: Charles P.

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Student Review: Trouble, by Gary Schmidt (reviewed by Tyler S.)

Trouble Trouble by Gary D. Schmidt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

How would you feel if you had to team up with the man who almost killed your brother? That is a struggle that the main character had to deal with in this story. The first chapter of Trouble by Gary Schmidt opens with a line that makes the reader wonder what the trouble is: ”Henry Smith’s father told him that if you build your house far enough away from Trouble, then Trouble will never find you” (1). One of the main characters, Henry, receives a message one night about his brother, Franklin, who is near death after being hit by a car. Immediately the family rushes to the hospital to see Franklin, possibly for the last time. As soon as others in the community find out that a Cambodian man named Chay Couhan hit Franklin, racist outbursts consume the city, forcing Chay to flee the community to a nearby mountain. Henry, who wanted to get away from everything, decides to go to the same mountain because it was where Franklin wanted to rock climb with him before. Both Chay and Henry unknowingly are headed toward the same area. Chay and Henry meet face to face, and the story’s surprising twists begin there. In this action-filled book, there are non-stop twists, keeping your heart racing throughout the story. I would recommend this book to people who like action filled stories. ~ Student: Tyler S.

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