Book Review: Fire in the Ashes

This review is adapted from an original piece published in the Centre’s journal Ethnicity and Race in a Changing World.

Book review: Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America by Jonathan Kozol (Crown Publishers: New York 2012)

Review by Jo Manby

This book is evidence of the kind of enduring, personal relationship that an ethnographer or documentarist can build up within a community if they invest their time and open their hearts to those around them.

Jonathan Kozol has been working with children in inner-city schools in the United States for almost fifty years. Over several years, he has been in conversation with a group of children from one of its poorest urban neighbourhoods. He begins his story – the story of these children – with a picture of New York City’s poor and homeless people on Christmas Eve 1985, thousands of them ‘packed into decrepit, drug-infested shelters, most of which were old hotels situated in the middle of Manhattan’ (p.3).

Kozol focuses on one hotel, the Martinique, where 1,400 children and some 400 of their parents struggled against the odds. Asthma and diarrhoea were prevalent among the children; depression and drug abuse among the adults. All were hungry and exposed to the ‘documented presence of widely known carcinogens’ (p.7) such as asbestos. There was also the ever present threat of sexual exploitation.

In 1988/89 the hotels were finally closed and the ‘several dozen families….. all but two of whom were black or Latino’ (p.11) – those whom Kozol had got to know – were moved into poor, and segregated, areas of the Bronx.

Kozol is the author of numerous books on this subject, and Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America is a response to those who have read his previous work and wondered what became of his subjects. He stayed (and stays) in touch with many of them over the decades and here tells the story of those who ‘prevailed, a few triumphantly’ (p.12); those who merely survived; and those who did not.

His first chapter outlines his agenda; his second tells the story of Eric and his sister Lisette, who, due to the kindness of a reader of one of Kozol’s previous books, were able to resettle in Montana with their mother Vicky, in a house part-rented by the local church and with the best efforts of the community to embrace the new family. Sadly the situation worked well for a while but Eric eventually turned to serious crime, was unable to open up to people about his feelings, and committed suicide. This broke his mother’s resilience and she died later of pancreatic cancer. Only Lisette survived and led a positive life.

In the third chapter, ‘Pietro and His Children’, a pattern begins to emerge whereby some of the people who had lived in destitution in somewhere like the Martinique Hotel were injured by the experience. Pietro Locatello’s son Christopher became involved in ‘panhandling’ on the streets aged 10 and by the age of 15 was often out all night with no-one in the family knowing where he was. He was convicted later of attempted homicide for throwing, along with other youths, a boy they did not know onto the underground tracks, and served a jail term. He eventually apparently committed suicide with a heroin overdose.

Chapter 4 tells of Ariella Patterson, ‘a self-possessed and level-headed woman’ (p.81) whose son, Silvio, died age 14 while ‘surfing’ – lying flat on a train roof and riding through tunnels. Silvio’s younger brother, Armando, also began to get involved in drug dealing and was in prison, but managed to extricate himself and ‘lives for his wife and children now’ (p.102). Conversely the subject of Chapter 5 is Alice Worthington, in regard to whom, Kozol reflects, ‘victimhood is not the word that comes to mind ….. she rejected victimhood ….. she rose above the meanness that surrounded her’ (p.139).

Part II of the book tells the story of ‘A Bright Shining Light’, the survivors of places like the Martinique, such as Leonardo, ‘The Boy Who Ate a Giant Bag of Cookies While He Walked Me All Around the Neighborhood, And His Very Interesting Mom’; and Pineapple, whom Kozol met when she was six, a person ‘in love with life ….. a buoyant and affirming personality’ (p.173), who also features in a second chapter, ‘Pineapple in All Her Glory (And Still Bossing Me Around)’, as does Jeremy, a 12 year-old in Chapter 10 and at college in Chapter 11.

The final story is about Benjamin, who is Kozol’s godson. It ‘was the hardest one to write’ (p.283). Benjamin lost his mother when he was 12 and subsequently three of his brothers; but at the end of Kozol’s narrative, lives a full and busy life, attending college and inspired by religious faith. Kozol’s book is filled with a love of humanity and cries out for the attention of American public and politicians alike.

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