Sunday, July 10, 2016
Arc Review: When We Was Fierce by e.E. Charlton-Trujillo
When We Was Fierce by e.E. Charlton-Trujillo. 382 p. Candlewick Press, August 9, 2016. 9780763679378. (Review from arc courtesy of the author.)
When author and film maker, e.E. Charlton-Trujillo posted a query on FB about who might want an arc of her upcoming book a few months ago, I jumped at the chance. Only the arc languished on the tbr pile whilst I completed books and reviews I had deadlines for. But shortly after getting ready to pack for ALAAC16, I cracked the book open one night before turning in. By page 48, my heart had already broken several times; I already adored Hilda and Theo; but then came the revelation. And I had to close the book because it hurt too much for the first of many times. But, I'm getting ahead of myself.
The book opens with Theo, our fifteen-year-old narrator and his friends, fresh from a pick-up b-ball game witnessing the brutal beating of Ricky-Ricky at the hands of Money Mike. Theo knows he should steer clear, but he's worried about Ricky-Ricky, who's a bit slow and stutters and wouldn't hurt a fly. Theo crosses the street to check on Ricky-Ricky.
And I kneel down to Ricky-Ricky quick
Couldn't make out his face
'cause he was so wet with blood.
I musta' gone pale 'cause I felt the color float.
'Ricky-Ricky," I shook him. "Get up, you fool."
And the second I looked close at Ricky-Ricky,
to see if he lost his breath,
the quick clunk of those black boots met my face.
Just like that.
The earth spun. (p. 13)
Verse novels tend to lend themselves to fast reads. Not so When We Was Fierce. Firstly, there was the problem of my constantly breaking heart, and subsequent need to close the book to breathe. Secondly, this sheltered, suburban white girl felt like she was reading a foreign language. The syntax and the rhythm though beautiful, were unfamiliar. I found myself spending so much time decoding that I was failing to understand what I was reading. I began to wonder if there would be an audiobook that I should wait to listen to so that I could understand and appreciate what I was trying so hard to read. (That's the way I got through Dickens.)
Instead, I leaned in and Listened. Once, I clicked with the cadence of the language, I kept it slow anyway. And I dog-earred many, many pages in order to go back and revisit moments - of revelation, of sadness, of humor (that Hilda is a force of nature), of tenderness, and of admiration for what e.E. Charlton-Trujillo has done here. She has provided a compassionate, yet unflinching depiction of the brutal, often short lives of the inner city poor.
When We Was Fierce not only has a courageous, wise and winning narrator in Theo, but a host of vivid, memorable main and secondary characters. The aforementioned Hilda, Theo's widowed mom who works several jobs and has high hopes for Theo and his pregnant sister, Monica. Monica, strong, bright and honest, owning her mistake and trying to decide what is best. Even Theo's deceased father, Tony looms large as Theo tries to man up and also be the man his father was. Odds are truly stacked against him and he knows it. He is eloquent and wise beyond his years.
He fears for the well-being of his friends, Catch and Yo-Yo, step-brothers caught in a cycle of vicious abuse at the hands of Pinky. He sees the light in Catch's eyes extinguishing and mourns the loss of his friend. That they are all marked by Money Mike because Theo insisted on checking Ricky-Ricky haunts him.
Once I finished, reading the ending through tears, I wiped my eyes, reread the ending and started the book again. It has been several days since I finished, but images are seared into my very being. Most of the folks in Theo's world have taken up permanent residence in my heart (right close by Angie from Charlton-Trujillo's 2013, Fat Angie and Miguel, Rondell and Mong from Matt de la Peña's 2009, We Were Here). I look forward to rereading this literary masterpiece many times both with my eyes and with my ears. This raw, gritty, powerful, eloquent, important, timely book needs to be read by EVERYONE.
ETA: If you ever get the opportunity to view e. E.'s documentary, At-Risk Summer, please do so. There's a trailer on Never Counted Out the not-for-profit organization founded and run by her in response to the kids she visited while on book tour for Fat Angie. If you can, drop a donation or a box of new books by. It's a great cause.