There Are No Children Here

12 Jul

Here is another great review by a Hey, Man! supporter. Renee just finished her first year of being a Spanish teacher and is quickly on her way to becoming an education expert! If you want to talk to Renee about her opinion on this book you can comment here or on our Facebook page.

Imagine the most dirty, filthy, disgusting place you have ever seen. Think of the cleanliness of portable toilets, the stains of blood from fresh crime scenes, and the stench of human waste at a crack house.
Now multiply that by one hundred.

Welcome to the world of Lafayette and Pharaoh Rivers.

While all of this may seem like something that we could have only imagined in our worst nightmare, it is all too realistic for Lafayette, Pharaoh, and the rest of the residents of Henry Horner, a public housing development in downtown Chicago.

In his startlingly enthralling biography There Are No Children Here, Alex Kotlowitz describes with painstakingly grotesque precision the treacherous battle against gangs, drugs, teenage pregnancy, and poverty that plagued the Public Housing Projects, not only in Chicago, but all over the country during the late 1980s. From the summer of 1987 until the summer of 1989, Kotlowitz reports the events, tragedies, turmoil, and victories of the Rivers brothers, two African-American boys, eleven and nine years old at the beginning of their biographies.

However, I must note, to classify this book as a biography seems anything but fair. Actually, it is much more of a social commentary on poverty-stricken America and the few options that its residents have to escape it. The book is written as if it were a novel more so than non-fiction, including extensive dialogue, present-tense storytelling, and an omniscient narrator. Kotlowitz includes several flashbacks that serve to provide background into the lives of the boys, their family, friends, and neighborhood. At times the story is somewhat confusing because the flashbacks are not told in any type of sensible order, but this structure only parallels the confusion and uncertainty that the people of Henry Horner live in each and every day.

The book opens in the tremendous heat of summer, the season of killing as the boys’ mother, LaJoe, calls it. As temperatures run hot, so do tempers and conflicts in the projects are normally solved with gunfire. The young boys are already facing the temptations of the gangs and the drugs they provide. As young as they are, they face death almost every day. Their own siblings (six in total) are in and out of prison on an almost regular basis, and when they are not in the lock up, they have brought their own children, significant others, and friends to live in the Rivers’ tiny state-subsidized apartment, which is a despicable nightmare in and of itself.

During the school year, Pharaoh excels while Lafayette continues to struggle. Although Pharaoh battles a speech impediment and is continuously berated by his bigger and stronger classmates, he finds refuge in learning and is often praised by his teachers for his never ceasing determination. Lafayette, on the other hand, does not possess the same love of learning as his brother and often faces the inner-battle of whether to continue his education, as so many of his peers did not. It is during these years that Lafayette faces his first real brushes with the law and comes tantalizing close to succumbing to the lure of the gangs. Yet, despite all of this, Lafayette is undyingly loyal to his family and is the most mature and stable of the lot of them, including his parents and older siblings. An adult at the age of eleven. Thus is life in the projects.

As the story continues into the following year, things definitely become worse before they get better. The family’s economic troubles become progressively worse. New members are being born into their already huge family, while others are being sent off to jail or disappearing into a drug-induced oblivion out in the neighborhood. Lafayette, especially, struggled during the second year of his biography. The gangs become an even more alluring proposition, especially after Lafayette loses his will to fight after he experiences a horrible personal tragedy.

It is easy to forget that such horrors are real, that this is the true and (mostly) unembellished version of what is happening in these two boys’ lives at the time. I often found myself reacting as I would to a bad horror movie, screaming at the screen “Don’t do that! You’ll get yourself killed!” But it is not a movie. Pharaoh and Lafayette are not characters. There are no cuts or second takes. The injuries are real and death is undoable. It is a waking nightmare that Kotlowitz has the courage to bring to the world’s attention.

I will not lie. I would not have read this book if it had not been assigned reading. I didn’t not want to read it; I just did not have the time. And besides, I didn’t really need to read it. I had seen Remember the Titans and The Blindside. I knew how these overcoming-adversity-and-racial-discrimination stories worked. Good guys win and three cheers for the powers of education, right?

It is refreshing to be proven wrong sometimes.

This story does not have a perfect ending. The treachery of the neighborhood does not end. The Rivers family does not hit the lottery. The dead do not come back to life. It is not until the epilogue that we see even the tiniest bit of hope for the future, and even then it does not burn that brightly in the sea of darkness. But they keep on swimming. Pharaoh and Lafayette do not let themselves drown in all of their misery. Which is what, after all, gives this story a happy ending.

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