in short: i haven't had a book make me wriggle with discomfort and heartbreak for a character in a LONG time.
but this one did.
johnny, a 15 year old boy, loves his family. he's solid - good grades, respectable, knows right from wrong. and then one afternoon, running in from school anxious for his ma's cooking, finds out a horrible secret.
he's a foster child. and for the past 15 years, the family he's lived with is not his "true" family. because of the amount of time a child is allowed to stay within the home of a foster family, he is being moved. in desperation, he reacts in the only way he can imagine: anger. frustration. violence.
he runs and finds himself right in the middle of a new family - a gang.
now, i realize wright probably wrote this to make a comment about race in new york city. i know this because i've studied wright before - i know his discontent with how blacks were treated. i get it. but it's not what i got out of this book. what i got out was the stark reality of so many of those who roam the hallways of our schools. the ones who without any warning, face the sudden casualties of life. families fall apart. violence strips innocence and dreams from their grasp.
within moments, their life becomes a shadow of what it once was - simply because of what was lost. where once their world was "solid, real; now [they] lived in a hot, sick dream" (Wright).
reading johnny's story was hard.
but perhaps more than any of what happens in the middle of the story, the last paragraph is heartbreakingly real & all-too-familiar:
Finally Johnny was dreaming, dreaming that the woman had come and had found him, and yet, while dreaming, knowing full well that she would never come, that he was alone, knowing that no such voice would call him home, reprove him with love, chastise him with devotion, or place a cool soft hand upon his brow when he was fevered with doubt and indecision; knowing that he was alone and had to go alone to make a life for himself by trying to reassemble the shattered fragments of his lonely heart.
the truth? we can change this.
kids don't have to go to bed lonely. they don't have to face a new rite of passage where it matters how long they can take a train or whether or not they can withstand a brutal beating for camaraderie and community.
it just takes one.