Lena snorts. “Look around. They rioting. You think the po po gonna show up for an alarm at one little store? Naw, man. Whenever they do get around to getting here, they gon’ be too busy tear gassin’ folks to worry about some hammers and some nails at the hardware store.”
A sob catches in my throat.
She’s right. The store is totally unprotected. My dad is screwed. And I am too.
– from I’M NOT DYING WITH YOU TONIGHT, by KIMBERLY JOHNSON & GILLY SEGAL
This novel was chosen as the Big Library Read-In for November, so despite my idea of reading it next summer it was easy to find, despite its August 2019 publication date. This book is wildly popular, likely because of the constant action, drama and angst which one could only experience in a situation which has boiled wholly and completely out of control.
One doesn’t often read about rioting in YA novels as the main source of the plot, but this novel deftly exposes how what appears to be a single inciting incident can be more of a final reaction to a chain of indignities which remain unaddressed. Riots that spring up after a peaceful protest is disrupted are more common now, in the age of street-level politics, where individuals debate on what might make America more great in their bigoted opinion, and act on their private prejudices in somewhat sanctioned arenas. Escaping from a racially motivated post-game brawl on the football field that culminates in a shooting, two girls, one black, one white, are strangers flung over their heads into a choppy sea of interdependence. The white girl has keys to a classroom and a phone. The black girl has a boyfriend with wheels. Between the two of them, they can surely manage to get to safety, can’t they?
Well, they would, but if it were that easy it wouldn’t be much of a book.
Campbell is white, and a sprinter in another life, at another school. Currently, she’s having abandonment issues. Her mother – with whom she’s lived for most of her life – has taken a job in Venezuela and has dumped her with the father she’s seen only infrequently – the man whose child support checks have bounced for much of her life. Campbell and her mom lost their house because of his inconstant support, which is why Campbell is so helpful at her Dad’s hardware store. It gets little foot traffic and he’s struggling to pay the bills. And yet – he won’t let Campbell get a job. It’s “dangerous” in the area of 7th Street where the store is – which is code for “too many poor/brown people” in the most obvious way. Campbell doesn’t even give it a second thought – taking, as few teens in YA do, her father’s word as law. She has also absorbed his ideas about brown/poor people making “poor choices,” and blurts this out, as if she has no understanding or comprehension at all of the racial tensions in the United States at this point. There are very likely teens who don’t have a comprehensive picture of all the issues in America just now, but it’s difficult to conceive of anyone who doesn’t know something — ! Still, we can admit that knowing something and letting it inform one’s thoughts, words and choices is another thing entirely.
Lena, meanwhile, is gorgeous and she knows it. Her looks and her skill with putting together outfits mean that she’s going to go somewhere – probably somewhere with a red carpet and plenty of cameras. She’s working hard, but her someday plan is to work for her boyfriend, Black, who is an up and coming rapper who is going to take them all the way. There was a LOT about Black in the novel – not details about who he was and why she loved him, but more about Lena’s hardheaded insistence on finding him as the answer to everything. A girl who otherwise carves out her own destiny with her own extensive fingernails, she seems largely unable to cope with the idea that safety could be in an empty house somewhere out of danger. Instead through the smoke and screams, through gunshots and flying bodies, she heads straight into the middle of the noise – sure that Black will save her. Campbell, many times in the narrative, reacts with sheer terror – woozy, light-headed, throwing up at the blood and chocking on the smoke. Lena is written as …impervious. She wades in, and her fear is reflected in Campbell’s part of the narrative as tension in her voice and widened eyes, but for the most part, Lena herself doesn’t admit to much fear. Instead, she stays the course until she finally finds Black – and then falls apart.
Where I struggled with the novel isn’t with the plot or the action, but the subtler issues which expressed themselves in Lena’s bravery and Campbell’s ignorance. It may seem strange to wish that Lena had been more afraid – as if the novel hadn’t depicted a world of death and smoke and flying bodies as her milieu so of course she was fine, in contrast to Campbell, who is repeatedly characterized as a fish out of water. Lena, too, is a fish out of water — as it is no one’s natural state to exist in violence and crisis. I really disliked, too, that Lena held it together until she fell apart on a man – lessening the impact of the huge feat of two girls making it through the dark. Lena’s life focus seems shallow and petty – her beauty, her hustle, her man. Her life goal is essentially a very stereotyped episode of MTV Cribs, with no impact made by the adults in her world at all – she seems to exist solely in a space of fellow teens and Black’s friends. Campbell, meanwhile, is depicted as having deeper, hidden issues and in many ways, much more at stake. The problems before her are… grown-up issues, and not as tied in to personal physical safety… oddly underscoring that a nice white girl, though unbelievably, inexcusably ignorant, is safe, no matter what.
Both girls occasionally have moments where they slow the narrative to think – and have epiphanies of a sort about how race and class are affecting them in the midst of this city-wide clash. However, these moments are less effective than they could be, and feel a little false – when you’re running and choking on smoke is not really the place to reflect on class difference in the United States. These moments underscore the authorial voices rather than those of the characters for me.
One thing I did appreciate is that the book simply ended. When both girls were home safe, they were done – out. In the truest sense of the word, they are not friends, the book doesn’t indulge in any specious kumbaya-bonding across the racial, ideological and class divides. The girls simply – step away from each other. The agreement is simply for the night, and then it’s over. They are two wildly different people who have had an experience together — but what has changed? Them? History? Or nothing?
A beautiful cover and an intriguing idea between a black writer and a white one, but the execution of the idea brings additional attention to the inequality of the characterizations. I’ll be interested to continue reading reviews.
Until the next book,
Another Constant Reader