Review: Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones
Title: Leaving Atlanta
Author: Jones, Tayari
Length: 7.5 hours of audio
Genre: Fiction, General
Publisher / Year: Recorded Books / 2002
Why I Read It: I loved Jones’ first book, The Untelling so thought this would be a great choice for a way to spend my 7.5 hour drive.
Date Read: 30/04/11
It was the end of summer, a summer during a two-year nightmare. African American children around Atlanta were vanishing, and twenty-nine would be murdered by the end of 1981. Like all kids across the city, fifth-grade classmates Tasha Baxter, Rodney Green, and Octavia Harrison were discovering that back-to-school now meant special safety lessons, indoor recess, and being thrown into a world their parents couldn’t comprehend, one in which the everyday challenges of growing up were coupled with constant fear – and the news of the murders of one’s peers.
Tasha can’t understand why she daily falls in and out of favor with her classmates – she isn’t weird like Rodney or “too dark” and outspoken like Octavia. Then, through a sudden crush on a boy from the wrong side of town, she finds that words have the power to both heal and wound.
I loved this book, and even loved it on audio. The book is told in three parts with each part having a different narrator – both in print and on audio. I loved the way that this was done. The first part was told by Tasha, the second by Rodney, and the third by Octavia. I loved Tasha’s section the best and Rodney’s the least, but even he grew on me until I couldn’t help but really feel for him and care about him and his story. The three lives are intertwined in more ways than they realize at first, and this becomes more clear as the story progresses.
Through the work we learn more about the awful spate of child murders that plagued the black Atlanta community from 1979-1981. For more information about this period check out the Wikipedia entry here. I hadn’t heard about these murders and it is truly shocking to read about the details. I really liked that Jones chose to write the book from the point of view of three children in grade 5 during the time of the killings (in 1979) as it really showed how these events disrupted their lives and what they thought of them.
Child narrators can be difficult as sometimes the voice doesn’t seem right. With each of these narrators I felt they seemed older than eleven, but then I don’t talk to many eleven year-olds to know what eleven year-olds sound like. I also felt that the situations that they were in caused them to be more mature than other eleven year-olds would be. In the end their unique blend of maturity and innocence worked fantastically and was very believable.
Through the murders of the black children Jones is able to explore the racism and injustice that was faced still in the southern states in the 1970′s. The white policemen aren’t fully trusted and no one knows if they are really doing all they can. The black families are unsure who to trust. Some of the kids don’t trust the whites around them and can’t help but see the injustice they face daily as being manifested in the lack of movement in finding the truth behind the disappearances and murders of their children.
The kids in the class at the focus of the story are all black but come from very different backgrounds. Some come from families with money and others are just scraping by and living in the projects. Jones clearly shows not only the racism that is evident in the background of their lives, and that plays out in their own class through their treatment of Octavia who is darker than the others. Jones also highlights the classism that exists in their own daily existence. The kids mostly hung out in their own groups it seemed, and everyone knew who lived where.
The book additionally explores the power of words and of thoughts. Tasha struggles with what words mean and the power they can have. Rodney has trouble putting words together and hides behind silence. Octavia knows the damage that words can do, and struggles with the lies that her mother tells. Through each different narrator we see another side of language and the hurt it can do. I made note of one passage that dealt with this and that I want to share here:
Words could be magic, but not in the abracadabra way that Deshawn believed. The magic that came from lips could be as cruel as children and as erratic as a rubber ball ricocheting off concrete.
While I loved the audio, there were so many sections that I would have loved to have marked down and come back to. I dislike that with the audio version I can’t do that as easily. Instead of sharing favorite passages I can only say that there were many points when I wished that I could have marked it down to share! The writing was beautiful and descriptive.
I highly recommend this book, as well as her other book, The Untelling. I am really looking forward to Jones’ third work, Silver Sparrow, which releases tomorrow, May 24th, 2011. I am excited as well to report that she will be signing this work at Book Expo America on Wednesday, May 25th. I think I may finally have a North American author on my favorite author list