Wednesday, March 25, 2009
NEW BOY- JULIAN HOUSTON
I vaguely remember reading CATCHER IN THE RYE when I was in high school, but I didn't remember much about it, so when Z had to read it for freshman English, I read along with him. As we plowed through CATCHER IN THE RYE BREAD (K's title), I could not help but wonder whether it is really necessary for every single high school student in America to read this "classic." What is my son, growing up in a middle class, single parent midwest home supposed to learn from Holden Caufield, a privileged white boy attending boarding school on the East Coast fifty years ago? Are there not other coming of age novels that might be more representative of the typical high school kids' experience? At the very least, would it not be worthwhile to read several different coming of age novels, or sections of novels, with the goal of comparing different parts of the country or world, different time periods, and different socioeconomic groups?
This week, I read a novel, that I think could replace, or at least complement CATCHER IN THE RYE. NEW BOY is the story of Rob Garrett, an African American teenager growing up in Virginia in the late 50's or early 1960's. As the book opens, Rob's parents, a dentist and school teacher, are dropping him off at Draper, an exclusive boarding school in Connecticut. Rob will be the first black student to attend Draper and his Aunt Gwen advises him that he would "do well to keep to himself until he sees what he is dealing with." Rob heeds her advice and has a successful, albeit lonely, year at Draper.
Predictably, issues of race do come up in this book. Over Thanksgiving vacation, Rob visits an elderly aunt in Harlem. He gets a ride from the train station with a classmate whose black chauffeur is visibly angry at Rob's more privileged status. He also visits an African American book store, and has a chance encounter with Malcolm X. Julian Houston embeds a great deal of history into these portions of the book, some reviewers have felt that there was "too much information," to coin my sons' favorite phrase. I enjoyed Houston's insights and didn't feel like the history was overwhelming at all.
The climax of the book deals directly with the Civil Rights movement. Throughout the book, Rob maintains contact with several high school friends from home. The friends are very involved in Civil Rights activities, and stage a sit-in at the Woolworth's lunch counter. These chapters, along with voting chapters from SECRET LIFE OF BEES would be terrific read alouds in any middle school or high school history class.
Unpredictably, Rob is not the main target of prejudice at the boarding school. At a meeting for new students, Rob meets Vinnie, an Italian-American student from New York. The boys at Draper tease Vinnie mercilessly- making fun of his Italian heritage and his acne-ridden face. Finally they ostracize him so totally that he is forced to move out of the dormitory. The headmaster and teachers at the school do nothing, mostly because Vinnie does not come from the old money families at the school. I can only imagine the rich discussions that might arise from closer examinations of this character.
NEW BOY is a great story. It offers much in the way of coming of age and historical fiction. I'm going to share it with my son's English teacher next week...