Thursday, February 26, 2009

Black and White by Paul Volponi

Reviewed by Steven Wolk

Paul Volponi has burst onto the young adult literature scene like a thrilling thunderstorm. His books take place in urban America, and involve race and culture, crime, and sports. Black and White is a dazzling book that brings all of these elements together in a great story of friendship, responsibility, basketball, and the social and personal lines between race and class.

Marcus and Eddie are seniors in high school, best friends, and the stars of their basketball team. In fact, they are so good at the game that scholarships to top college basketball programs are a lock. Marcus is black and Eddie is white, and heir friendship, it appears, is beyond race and culture, and in school they are known as "Black" and "White."

Nearing graduation, Marcus and Eddie spend money needed for school on new basketball shoes. To replace the cash they decide to pull a few "parking lot stickups." There’s an old gun in a shoebox in Eddie’s attic ready for use. It’s a simple plan; rob a few people leaving stores, replace the school money, end of story. But then the gun goes off. Eddie didn’t mean to shoot the man, who happens to be a neighborhood bus driver. But here is a key arc to the story: The bus driver sees Marcus but doesn’t see Eddie. Marcus gets arrested. Eddie doesn’t. What should they do?

Their lives spinning out of control, their friendship slowly being torn apart, Marcus and Eddie don’t know what to do. Should Eddie turn himself in? Should Marcus "rat out" his best friend? Where is the line between friendship and responsibility? And to make things even more complex, Marcus is secretly dating Eddie’s sister, Rose. Told in alternating chapters from the voices of Black and White (and with a different font for each character), the story unfolds like a beautifully executed play on the basketball court. You know where they’re going but you’re not sure exactly how they will get there.

The first tests for any novel are the story, the characters, and the writing. Black and White has them all in abundance. But it has more. The book is brimming with vital questions about our criminal justice system. When Marcus arrives in prison at Rikers, he says, "It’s black people wall to wall. There are Spanish inmates, too. But everyone else is black... I saw plenty of white faces in court. I guess they were innocent or made bail. The only white faces I saw on Rikers belonged to the corrections officers."

There is a scene in Black and White that speaks a powerful truth about crime, race, and class in the U.S., as well as the moral complexity of family. After Marcus is arrested two detectives visit Eddie’s house. Marcus hasn’t turned his friend in, but it doesn’t take much investigating for the police to figure out Eddie’s involvement. But they don’t have any evidence. They question the family. Ask if they own a .38 caliber. His father is outraged, and yells, "We don’t own a gun!" and says the police should be out chasing "real criminals." But later that night Eddie is in bed and hears some creeks from attic. Eddie goes up there. His dad is sitting, holding the closed shoebox. They stare. His dad says, "I don’t ever want to open this box, Eddie. Do I?" Eddie has nothing to say. His father tells him to get back to bed. In the morning the shoebox is gone. Two boys commit a crime. They may be the guilty ones, but so many more are complicit.


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