American Street

30256109First Lines: If only I could break the glass separating me and Manman with my thoughts alone.  On one side of the glass doors are the long lines of people with their photos and papers that prove that they belong here in America, that are allowed to taste a bit of this free air.

I receive this as an ARC from Edelweiss (I’m cutting it close; it comes out February 14, 2017.)  Before I saw it on Edelweiss, I’d never heard of this book.  But the description sounded awesome and I wanted to give it a shot.

This was supposed to be Fabiola Toussaint’s chance to live the perfect American life.  With her mother, she was going to move into the little house on the corner of American and Joy Streets with her cousins and aunt.  But after they leave Haiti, Fabiola’s mother is detained by US immigration, leaving Fabiola on her own as she tries to navigate the complex world of Detroit’s west side with her cousins Chantal, Princess, and Donna.  Just as Fabiola begins to figure out this strange new place, a dangerous offer presents itself to her and Fabiola must decide how much she’s willing to pay to live the American dream.

Can I just start by saying how timely this novel is?  The fact that it’s being released only weeks after a massive American travel ban that is separating families the same way Fabiola is separated from her mother?  I know these book releases are planned far in advance, but the timing is astounding.

Ok, here’s what I liked: I liked the infusion of Haitian culture and American culture. I liked seeing Fabiola try to understand American culture while her cousins, most of whom never saw Haiti, struggle to understand her culture and beliefs.  It’s a real culture shock for both sides.  (Especially when you see what happens on Thanksgiving!)

I thought Fabiola was a dynamic character. She begins scared and completely out of her element, especially as her mother remains detained in New Jersey. She’s on her own, with family she doesn’t remember. Then, as the story progresses, she grows into a stronger, braver girl who is beginning to find her place in this new city and new family. I liked seeing that confidence build.

I also liked how none of the characters were black-and-white heroes or villains. The characters you believe are good make mistakes–monstrous ones. The characters you hate have redeeming moments that make you think there’s still a chance for them to mend their ways. You can’t call any of them good or bad because everyone is both. Just like in life.

I also felt this was a stark and jarring view of life for many African-Americans and teenagers. I will be the first to admit that I have absolutely no idea of what the hardships are that people face in places like Detroit, that seem to be written off by everyone else as a dying city (which it’s not). But this book was shocking and, at times, uncomfortable. My world is nothing like that. And I had no idea that this was what it took to survive in these places.

Here’s what I didn’t like so much: the portrayal of Fab’s cousins and aunt. While I understand why they are so complicated, they also managed to seem flat. There was almost too much going on in their lives and by the time I got adjusted to what I’d just read, we were throwing more on top of it. For such main characters, they underwent virtually no change at all. And Matant Jo was barely in the story at all.

The story also seemed a bit unfocused. While we’re waiting to see what happens to Fab’s mother, we’re also watching her Haitian culture mix with American culture, Donna’s story, Pri’s story, Chantal’s story, how brutal American schools are, Dray’s story, Kasim’s story, and this backstory about a white girl who died taking bad drugs. There is literally so much going on that I could type out three full pages on the plot alone. Half of the time, I forgot about Fab’s mother.

This is neither negative nor positive, but I would like to just throw it out there that this is an incredibly dark book.  There is a massive amount of profanity, drug references, and violence in this story. It’s on virtually every page, which helps drill home what teenagers in Fab’s situation deal with on a daily basis. But it’s also a lot and sometimes it’s exhausting because it’s so common.

Overall, I thought this was a daring book that shows the struggle of teenagers we don’t normally get to read about.

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