The Rock and the River by Kekla Magoon
For some reason, I thought I had tons of reading to do over spring break, but I turned out to be two scant articles, the first ten chapters of Jane Eyre, and this. No disrespect to middle-grade and young adult novels, but I can usually power through most of them in a day—I have a fond memory of being so impatient to finish off Magic Under Glass while sitting in class. (Yes, I’m in college. I imagine I’ll be more impatient when I have a proper working life.) So I managed to wrap up all my work in about a day, off and on, but I was impressed with The Rock and the River—it’s the best book honestly aimed at middle-grade to young adult readers we’ve read so far. (The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is my favorite, but that’s a horse of an entirely different color; it’s a dark fable for all ages.)
The Rock and the River follows Sam Childs during 1968, a thirteen-year-old growing up in Chicago and the younger son of the civil rights activist Roland Childs. Sam can’t remember a time when his family wasn’t involved in peaceful protests, but Sam’s older brother and best friend, Stick, begins to chafe at the inability of the Civil Rights Movement to fight back and becomes involved in the Black Panther Party—which their father despises. As the struggle for racial equality is brought home in violent ways, Sam is torn between the two arguments presented by his father and his brother.
I’ve noticed that several of the books we’ve read for this course are overwhelmed by their social justice issue—Parvana’s Journey and Burn My Heart, just to name a few. There is an agreement between the reader and a fictional narrative that the reader will suspend their disbelief. Drawing attention to the fact that the book was written to teach the kids about something dents it, but it’s when key novelistic traits like pacing and character development are dropped in favor of drumming a lesson in that my disbelief remains firmly unsuspended. So you can imagine my delight when The Rock and the River took itself seriously as a novel first and foremost. It’s the story of a kid caught between a slow, but peaceful, path to equality and a quick, but violent, path to equality. It’s a complex situation, especially with the visibility of Sam’s father, and Magoon gives it the weight it deserves. While the Panthers feel a little idealized, neither path is presented as wholly right or wholly wrong; both approaches have their strong points and weak points, and, ultimately, they can work together. A delicate, nuanced approach to a social justice issue in the usually cut and dried turf of the Civil Rights Movement in a young adult novel? Be still, my heart.
And these characters are quite human—the parents struggle to balance parenting with working in the movement, Stick feels he’s forced to take up arms to get anything changed around here, and Sam, despite thinking he’s mature at thirteen, doesn’t realize the cost of following your beliefs or completely understand what his father and his brother are working towards. But they still love each other; when Stick comes home after running away, their father doesn’t know whether to be angry or feel relieved. (The novel is written in third-person limited from Sam’s perspective, par for the course with middle-grade and young adult literature.) Sam’s girlfriend, Maxie, is working class and lives in a neighborhood his mother doesn’t like him to visit at night; Sam gets called out on his classism on occasion, by Maxie and the other Black Panthers.
The Rock and the River isn’t perfect; it’s a little light and the writing rarely dazzles, although it captures Sam’s voice wonderfully. But the pacing and action are very well-done—this novel is book-ended by violent acts against the Childs’ families, and the assassination of Dr. King occurs about halfway through the novel. Magoon works well with an already tense situation—the plot feels organic and never forced. On top of that, the coming of age story is done with a light, deft hand; Sam doesn’t realize everything’s changed until, well, everything’s changed. It’s solid as… well, I’ll resist the paralleling pun, but it does what it does well and without pretense.
Bottom line: A solid and unpretentious young adult novel with a nuanced and complex take on the intersection between the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Panther Party occurring in one family during the 1960s. A good choice.
I bought this used book off of Amazon.