Title: The Parker Inheritance
author: Varian Johnson
date: Levine/Scholastic; 2018
main character: Candace Miller
Candace Miller, a young African American girl, and her mother move into the home that once belonged to her grandmother while their own home is being renovated. Her parents have divorced and they need to prepare the house for sale. This temporary residence is in Lambert, South Carolina and quite far from her home in Atlanta, Georgia. Lambert is a town with a hidden past that is presented in alternating chapters from the 1950s. Candace is pulled into its story when she discovers a letter sent to her grandmother about a buried treasure.
Varian Johnson, with a background in math and engineering, is the perfect author to create the history of this town and bury an inheritance in it. He scaffolds events and evidence in ways that our young sleuths, Candace and her new African American male friend Brandon Jones, are able to strategically solve the town’s mystery: who left millions of dollars to the city and where did they leave it. They cannot successfully solve the mystery without knowing the events that led this mysterious person to want to leave the inheritance in the first place.
Johnson recreates the town as it was, burdened with segregation, bigotry and hatred, and as it is, oblivious of its past yet moving forward. In his Lambert of the 1950s, racism is normalized. People, white and black, know where they belong and where they don’t. In the present-time chapters, things have changed. Events occur where Candace and/or Brandon are confronted with bigotry and we witness the children becoming able to sense what is being implied in situations.
“Watch your tone, young man.” He stepped forward. “And what’s in those backpacks?”
Everything was happening too fast, and all wrong. Candice had seen her mother answer enough questions about her father to know how to handle people who were being rude or nosy. This was something else. Something darker…
…The grabbed their bikes and walked them away from the building. She didn’t turn around to see if Mr. Rittenhauer was looking at them. She didn’t want to know.
“I guess we’d better bring our ID’s next time,” Brandon said. He sputtered out a bit of a laugh.
I don’t even have a real ID card. Just one from school.”
“Yeah. Me too.”
They paused at the edge of the street. “Can we take a rain check on those chili-cheese dogs?” he asked. “I’m not really hungry anymore.”
“Me neither,” Candace said. (p. 131-133)
They develop the ability to both cope with and manage these situations independent of their parents. They learn how to resist.
Candace’s developing sense of social injustice extends to gender issues as she questions girl books vs. boy books and sexual orientation when she realizes Brandon’s orientation is questioned, assumed and attacked by others. While she decides to give Brandon space to be whoever he needs to be, she realizes that others do not. Her role as a friend, as this girl to a boy, is a central part of the story.
I think there are many reasons why people don’t care for mysteries, and I think all of those reasons stem from the fact that it is so easy to mess them up. Clues can either be too obvious or too convoluted. Character development and plot can be lost in the effort to build suspense or the writer may miss opportunities to leave readers wondering. I think Johnson avoids all the pitfalls.
I think we’re seeing a trend in intergenerational stories and here, Johnson has written one centered on a town’s history. He presents its racist past in a way that allows readers to see its citizens growing in their awareness and acceptance of each other. The town’s identity is based in its past just as Candace’s is based upon her grandmothers.