author: Walter Dean Myers
date: Egmont; 2009
main character: Claire Johnson
In developing the history of this book, Myers states that the first Africans came to America as slaves in 1619. I have to correct this statement and please know that in doing so, I’m not discrediting Myers further historic details. I have not studied the New York Draft Riots and from reading the book, I believe the author did extensive research on this event.
To say the first Africans came as slaves in 1619 is a rather common misstatement. The first Africans came to the New World with the Spanish and Portuguese as explorers. They traveled with Columbus, Balboa and other explorers of the day. Free Blacks helped establish St. Augustine, FL in 1565 and were present in cities established by the Spanish throughout the Southwest. Africans were sold as indentured servants in Jamestown in 1619, just as poor Europeans were, with all expecting to buy their own freedom. It’s the racist mutation to enslaving the Africans as human chattel that changed everything and led to the events Myers describes in Riot.
In this book, written in screenplay form, Myers focuses on a mixed raced family to encapsulate the horrors of the Draft Riots. Irish were upset that they were being forced/drafted to fight in what they saw as a war that would free southern Blacks to compete with them for jobs. Wealthy Northerners could buy their way out of the war and most of the Irish were not wealthy. At the same time, conditions existed in large Northern cities that brought Irish and Blacks into close proximity, creating strong friendships and even marriages.
John, a Black man, is married to Ellen, a White woman and their daughter, Claire who is light enough to be identified as White. The riots bring racism to Claire’s attention (who embodies the sentiment of society) to the forefront as never before. Why can’t she just be herself and not be Black Clair, she wonders. Myers takes us into the streets where we dwell in the fear, compassion, hatred and desperation of the characters.
I didn’t want to like the story because of it’s formatting. The book is written in screenplay form, as Monster was. These form can be quite limiting when developing a book but Myers is such a good writer! His dialogs did a wonderful job of taking me back to that era. I particularly liked when Walt Whitman appeared in the story.
I would pair this book with
A Wish After Midnight by Zetta Elliott