Friday, November 24, 2017

Book Review: "Green" by Sam Graham-Felsen

"I am the white boy at the Martin Luther King Middle. Well, one of two. Kev, my oldest friend and the biggest dick I know, is the other. But if you had to pick just one, it'd be me. There are a few other white kids in the system (unless you count Boston Latin as a public school, which you shouldn't), and I pretty much know all of them."

Dave Greenfeld (aka "Green") is starting the sixth grade in Boston in 1992. His "hippie parents" have no interest in the latest fashion trends or really any of the status symbols that would ease his transition into middle school—they'd rather buy his clothes at thrift shops, and don't see the need to spend money on fancy sneakers, even if no one else would be caught dead in year-old Filas. He wishes his parents would just send him to private school, like they do his troubled younger brother, Benno.

Middle school starts pretty much the same way elementary school ended for Dave—the girls pretty much ignore him, and he gets bullied by kids of all races. Even Kev, his oldest friend, would rather avoid him and hang out with the cooler kids. Avoiding bullies and being friendless seems to be Dave's destiny, unless he aces the placement test that will guarantee him a spot at Boston Latin, the best public high school in the city. If you get into Latin, you're going to college, guaranteed.

One day, Dave is surprised when one of his fellow classmates, Marlon Wellings, stands up for him. Marlon lives with his grandmother in the public housing projects down the street from Dave's house. But Marlon is far from the stereotypical "projects kid": he is driven by his ambition to get into Latin, he steers clear of those who want to draw him into their gangs or their trouble, and he's obsessed with the Boston Celtics, especially his favorite player, Larry Bird.

Mar and Dave become fast friends, and they spend their time hanging out at Dave's house, watching vintage Celtics games (Mar has them all on videotape), playing "nasketball," a game Dave made up involving a trampoline, and listening to Mar's obsession with doing well on the Latin placement test. Dave envies Mar's devotion to his church (Dave was raised a "secular Jew," although his family doesn't observe any religion, which is a frustration to his paternal grandfather, whose entire family was killed in the Holocaust), his fascination with going to Harvard some day, and the way he doesn't seem to let anything bother him, yet Dave knows he has issues of his own.

But when Mar is not around, Dave is still being bullied, and confronting the violence that breeds in the urban community in which he lives, as well as among his own classmates. He becomes more and more desperate for his parents to put him in private school because he doesn't think he'll be able to do well enough on the Latin placement test to escape his school, but his parents would rather just report Dave's problems to the principal, making him even more a target. He's afraid to stand up for himself, let alone his friends, like Mar.

As Mar begins experiencing problems of his own, problems he doesn't want to discuss with Dave, Dave realizes that there are differences between the two of them that they keep running into. He never really thought he was actually luckier than his friend, and doesn't quite understand the struggles that Mar faces, snap judgments from people that don't even know him. But little by little, those differences strain their relationship, causing both of them to act in ways they never imagined they would.

Green is an insightful, thought-provoking coming-of-age novel which deals with some significant issues without being overly heavy-handed. Sam Graham-Felsen, in his debut novel, provides interesting, and at times poignant, commentary about racial and cultural differences, and how they can strain a friendship. He has also created a fascinating, flawed narrator in Dave, who at times seems much older than his age, and at times reminds you that you're listening to life filtered through the eyes of a sixth-grader.

I enjoyed this book but thought the pacing was a little slow, and the same things seemed to happen a few times before the plot advanced. There were a few plot threads that never really got resolved, particularly why Benno refused to speak for more than a year, and there were veiled references to tragedies within Dave's father's family that never were addressed. Why allude to things that you're not willing to wrap them up?

One warning: there's a good amount of attention given to Dave's burgeoning hormones and his increasing obsession with masturbation, so this could make you uncomfortable.

Much like the main character himself, Green is imperfect but tremendously engaging. Sam Graham-Felsen has created a refreshing new narrator with a fascinating and moving perspective on growing up in the midst of racial and cultural tensions. It's a surprisingly timely book, even though it takes place in 1992.

NetGalley and Random House provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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