Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

It’s fitting that the conclusion to JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy begins with a story about Christmas. An elegy is a poem or a commemoration for the dead. Not to be confused with a eulogy, which is a statement made at a funeral, an elegy is more a lament, a sorrowful but respectful piece of art spoken at any time about the dead. In its craftedness, perhaps there’s a bit of a warning and a plea to it, too. Vance’s portrayal of hillbillies is about a dying people. But his Christmas story at the end of the book is about his resurrection from near destruction to the American Dream. He’s buying Christmas presents for kids like him: poor, without much hope, yearning for Christmas to give them a glimpse of security and abundance.

He uses Christmas as a prime example of the differences between hillbillies and “the other Americans,” for lack of a better term. During all the preceding chapters, Vance struggles to put his finger on how he’s different, but he knows he is. Is it because he’s poorer than his law school colleagues? Is it because his mom is a drug addict and he is raised mostly by his grandparents? Is it because of his Kentucky roots? Is he “normal” or are “they”? However he defines the differences, at Christmas, they become pronounced. Families like the Vances’ worry about presenting a “nice Christmas,” one that would reassure kids that everything is okay, we’re not as bad off as neighbors, one that shows off the parents’ ability to provide regardless of challenges the rest of the year. And yet, in the very striving for a “nice Christmas,” a Christmas like those of higher classes, what keeps them from succeeding is all the more apparent, and often drive the families further into debt, to drinking more, or being more available at home.

“Though we sing the praises of social mobility, it has its downsides. The term necessarily implies a sort of movement – to a theoretically better life, yes, but also away from something.” JD Vance begins the book with a confession that he didn’t write it because he did something extraordinary, but because he transformed. It isn’t who he becomes that’s the story so much as how he changes. He becomes something other than who he was, who he was expected to have become. In some ways he exceeds expectations, but in other ways, he strays from them. His choices involve distancing himself from the habits of his people. He chooses to better himself for his own sake. He chooses not to complain but to overcome. “Here is where the rhetoric of modern conservatives (and I say this as one of them) fails to meet the real challenges of their biggest constituents. Instead of encouraging engagement, conservatives increasingly foment the kind of detachment that has sapped the ambition of so many of my peers…. What separates the successful from the unsuccessful are the expectations that they had for their own lives. Yet the message of the right is increasingly: It’s not your fault you’re a loser; it’s the government’s fault.”

Vance says he doesn’t have a solution to the “problem” of hillbillies. “Our elegy is a sociological one, yes, but it is also about psychology and community and culture and faith.” No one person can solve that, if there even is a solution. He points to what is helpful, or, as his friend puts it, “puts a thumb on the scale a little for the people at the margins.” Policies that keep families together, for one thing, and not at the mercy of a child welfare system that does more harm than good. But most of all, people to support one kid at a time, who, like JD, chooses to make and keep high expectations for himself. He may not have a solution, but he certainly DOES something by writing the story of his 31 years truthfully, with research into the structures at work in his life, and by giving credence to forces that raise him up to who he is and who he is becoming.

The book may be a memoir, but it is not the last word. JD Vance has generated controversy. In a review of the book in the New Republic, November 17, 2016, Sarah Jones writes, “don’t emulate Vance in your rage. Give the white working class the progressive populism it needs to survive, and invest in the areas the Democratic Party has neglected. Remember that bootstraps are for people with boots. And elegies are no use to the living.She and Vance both point out that hillbillies are traditionally Democratic. So, who’s failing them? To whom is the anger directed? The conservatives Vance cites as claiming hillbillies as their constituents or the Democrats? With Appalachian roots herself, Sarah Jones does not agree that hillbillies are the cause of their own undoing, nor will they be the source of their own salvation. She has faith in a democratic (not a Trump) system to ensure people have boots to pull up. We’ll soon find out if there’s a winner in this debate, come a new presidency and a new year.

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Extreme Makeover by Dan Wells

Are you ready for a new you this New Year? Dan Wells gives us an Extreme Makeover in this stand alone novel. The author of the John Wayne Cleaver, Partials and Mirador series maintains his thrilling sci-fi themes in this latest book, with a serious twist. The book is a commentary both on our obsession with changing our appearance as well as the corporations that prey on these desires. You won’t be the same after taking an imaginary glimpse into what could happen if we let our temptations become reality.

The head chemist at NewYew, Lyle Fontanelle, accidentally discovers a formula that improves skin by changing its DNA. “The plasmids in the lotion were designed to unroll and mimic DNA long enough to rewrite portions of themselves onto the host DNA.” In effect, the plasmids in the lotion turn the person using it into a new person, with rewritten DNA. While his company is eager to skirt around FDA approval to unleash ReBirth, this new beauty product, Lyle wishes he could, instead, get his lotion into the hands of people who really need it for health. He hands it off to a Dr Kuvam who is willing to try the lotion on his cancer patients without it being approved. Ibis, a competitor beauty care company, wants to steal the formula to market as their own. But none of these contenders anticipates what will happen with ReBirth’s widespread use.

NewYew confines (imprisons) a group who tested samples of ReBirth after they discover the unintended consequences: cloning. These test patients not only become new, they become clones of Lyle and clones of others who have touched the lotion. This ups the ante. Now, NewYew and Ibis both want to market model people the lotion turns users into and the government wants ReBirth for espionage. The imprisoned test participants have not only an extreme makeover, but want an extreme takeover; they want revenge against NewYew.

The premise itself promises drama but Dan Wells delivers the drama with short, pithy chapters each headed with the time of day, location and countdown “THE END OF THE WORLD” (in caps). There’s suspense even before we read a sentence! The content of the chapters is chock full of action. The characters make split-second, game-changing decisions in almost every chapter. For example, when Ibis gets caught spying for info on ReBirth, the CEO of NewYew decides, “find him… I want his head of my desk by morning.” Susan, one of the prisoners, executes her plan for escape. She “shoved the keys in the ignition, the car roared to life, and she tore out of the driveway like the fires of hell were behind her.” With lots of disposal income, state-of-the-art equipment, smarts and power, Dan Wells provides his characters the means for an action-packed, well-thought-out, intricate plot.

One of the biggest surprises is that the person who changes the most is one whom ReBirth never changes: its inventor, Lyle. He takes a sample, but it clones him into himself. However, he transforms from a spineless, direction-less scientist into someone who learns to act with love. When he’s kidnapped by Ibis to become their scientist, they provide him a lab. “He had everything he could possibly need, but nothing that he actually wanted.” He wants to use his discovery for good, but doesn’t know how. Kuvam proves a mistake. Ibis manipulates him. He doesn’t know how to move forward toward something good, only how to escape what might kill him. Change begins when he has to confront legions of clone Lyles. “All he had left was a face shared by a hundred thousand others. It wasn’t much of an identity, but it was his. In a world where so many people had lost themselves, he’d kept himself… and he’d drawn some kind of strength from that.” Later, he meets Lilly, another character who isn’t cloned, and finds the strength to change the course of human history by his love for her. He moves the plot along with his questions about his own identity, drawing us into the meaning of the novel through his own story.

Dan Wells says in the acknowledgements that “I tried to focus on… the idea that nobody is unique, and that doppelgangers appear everywhere, and that certain ideas and actions and names, and even people, will repeat themselves endlessly throughout our lives.” Perhaps the book is, in the end, a colossal irony. Perhaps, an Extreme Makeover happens from the inside out, in little, distinguishing ways, in individual stories of merit hidden within the high drama of culture wars and corporate hijinks. Now that’s motivation for a New Year’s resolution.

What a Woman Must Do by Faith Sullivan

What a Woman Must Do begs the question: what are the circumstances under which she has to decide? What forces her hand to act? Kate, Harriet, and Bess, who share a house in Harvester, Minnesota, each come to critical junctures in their lives. While Kate’s arthritis threatens her mobility, her boarder and dear friend, Harriet, waits for a marriage proposal. Bess, like a daughter to both these surrogate mothers, falls in love on the verge of college. In this novel, Faith Sullivan shows us women not hemmed in by an either/or choice, rather, What a Woman Must Do is about a love that both frees women to chart their own paths, and also ties them to one another.

The book is laid out in chapters alternately titled Kate, Harriet and Bess, but none of these characters speak as “I.” An omniscient narrator tells the tale, as though watching over all the characters, like God. “God had forgiven the world the death of his Son. Well, she wasn’t God. She [Kate] was a spiteful old woman.” She does, however, resembles God in that the first and last chapter are about her. She has an important voice among the three women. She also has a special relationship with time. She can transport herself into the past. “In conjuring, you looked back. No, you took yourself back. She had learned, for example, to call forth the the farm in every detail as it had been – touch, smell, sound. Traveling through years and miles, she returned to it. She was there. Not in imagination, but in conjuration.” Similar to conjuring, she practices the art of “forecasting.” Friends ask her to read their fortunes and Harriet and Bess count on Kate to anticipate their needs and desires. She is always “there” for them as mother-figure and friend. They begin to wonder how long she’ll be around, however, when joint pain makes movement more and more difficult. In her old age and infirmity, Kate is also like God. “Old age was a forced retreat. You carried with you as much of what you had been as you could.” She bears memories of her dead husband and her lost farm, of Celia and Archer, Bess’s dead parents. To her, and to Harriet and Bess, with whom Kate shares her memories, the past is alive. Through Kate, Ms Sullivan explores the past and foretells the future with an intimacy that brings them to the fore. Time is like a character in its own right, palpable as “the intricate web of silvery leaves [in which] lay intimations of things that a woman must do.” Time is what lies between the characters, influencing how they react to each other.

There is something dark, almost demonic, about Kate, too, suggested by this spidery image, her spite and the spiritual powers she possesses. When the newspaper runs the story about the tragic death of Bess’ parents for the “Way Back When” column, Kate relives the anger she felt at the time and wonders if it contributes to her physical pain. Others in the town of Harvester are also upset by the re-hashed news. It is a reminder of how Harvester itself, like old Kate, holds its memories against its inhabitants. There’s the memory of the Depression in which many, including Kate, lose their farms, and there are family histories no one can escape. About Kate, at the end of the book: “Spreading her arms wide and swallowing deep draughts of a landscape worn and patinated, she considered the persuasions of heaven. She might have to forgo them.” It might be because she reads tarot cards and is more interested in Greek myths than the saints. It may be because she resents her losses and doesn’t want to forgive. Whatever the case, her forgoing heaven seems to be a stand she makes, part of what she must do. Just before Kate’s last chapter is one about Harriet and Bess. Could it be that Kate’s forgoing heaven has something to do with making possible new choices for her friends and family? Could it be that she has something to do with freeing these women to choose to love in an original way, not tied to expectations from the past?

What I like about this book is how the pleasure of its quaint scenes of small town life and decorous love affairs gives way to a probing look at the underbelly of parochialism. What, at first glance, is a book about fairly conventional women living their hearty lives on the plains, is actually an insightful inquiry into the difficulties of being independent women anywhere. Sullivan says, “words are containers for small and tidy feelings.” The book is full of words describing birds and gardens, country drives and longing glances, but that’s not what it’s about; it’s about the unseen, unwritten forces that bring a woman to reckoning with what she must do. In Kate, Faith Sullivan draws a model for women of all ages, stations and eras. I look forward to her four other books about Harvester, Minnesota – Goodnight, Mr Wodehouse, Gardenias, Empress of One, and Cape Ann – to get a fuller picture of such women.

Triple Love Score by Brandi Megan Granett

I highly recommend this book as a Christmas vacation flight of fancy. Set largely around the holiday season, the book is both a dream to enjoy and a drama on which to spend a little Christmas sentimentality. Join Miranda, the Blocked Poet, as she crafts poems from linked words on a Scrabble board. The game becomes a conceit for the novel; as they rediscover lost loves and kindle new ones, the characters interlock in plot that leads us around the globe and home again.

Just when Miranda thinks she’s out of poems, that teaching is her only creative outlet, she meets an inspiring lover, Ronan, and starts prodigiously posting new poem-pictures on the Internet, under the pseudonym Blocked Poet. Her best friend Danielle warns Miranda that her fling is bound to hurt someone, perhaps herself the most. After Miranda meets up with her childhood best friend, Scott, at their families’ annual Thanksgiving gathering, her feelings for Ronan fade. But her poems do not. At Scott’s encouragement, Miranda markets her Scrabble poems through an agent friend of his. Then, suddenly, Danielle beckons Miranda to Turkey for her surprise wedding. Miranda breaks things off with Ronan and flies off to the wedding with Scott, but Ronan plans revenge. Meanwhile, on their trip, things between Scott and Miranda heat up. Upon their return home, Miranda has to decide how to keep up a relationship with Scott and his six year old daughter, Lynn, while also maintaining her job as poet and teacher. Ronan and the mother of Scott’s daughter, Cassadee, construct obstacles for the fledgling couple. Like Scott says, “it’s like a weird maze…. We have to stay in it to get out of it.”

Miranda, Scott, Lynn, Ronan, Cassadee: Ms Granett weaves these characters together like Miranda shows participants how to arrange their own theme-words on Scrabble boards she sells on her marketing tour. Laced together, the words hint at a story, at meaning, leaving readers’ imaginations to fill in the rest. Ms Granett excels at saying enough, but not too much. “Everyone thinks that poets are these great communicators, so good with words. That was probably one of the greatest myths about poets. They don’t realize that words dazzle some poets, capturing their hearts and interest because of their fleeting nature. What she wanted to say flitted around in her mind like butterflies while she chased after them with a net. Only the mesh of her net was woven with too wide a gauge, and every word just slipped through.” Here, Miranda gropes at how to express her love for Scott. What she expresses clearly is Ms Granett’s skill developing her characters through action more than words. She has lots to work with; they lead busy lives! While Miranda is on a 42 day Poetry tour, Scott has basketball and soccer practice in and around teaching at a Montessori school. Lynn will allow only Scott and Miranda only twenty minutes to sit before she’s off and running again. While at times I wished for more description than “each morsel tasted better than the last” (about croissants in Paris), I don’t think basking in language is Ms Granett’s intention. She uses prose to evoke feeling and to move things along. The novel goes at a quick clip. I finished it in only a few days and could hardly put it down every time I read.

Miranda finally finds herself on Ellen’s talkshow, the last stop on her tour. Ellen asks her, “you play Scrabble by yourself, without any rules. Do you really need to win that badly?” Miranda laughs; she knows Ellen has missed the point on purpose, to get a rise out of her, and a laugh from her audience. Miranda writes not to win but to create and communicate. She says, “as much as I want to stay in this story, I want to get on that plane today and find out the next chapter of that story. It’s like I want to read two books at exactly the same time.” The winsome Scrabble context of this novel allows Ms Granett to let her characters have their cake and eat it too. She gives Miranda a poet’s dream – fame! – while also exploring less fantastical, but nonetheless exciting opportunities like family life. Without needing to win, Triple Love Score is the happy result of well-crafted characters navigating a fun (not frivolous) holiday adventure.

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

 

In the middle of the prologue, I started to wonder if I was the sellout, if the joke was on me, a white middle-class woman from the Deep North. Maybe I was the sellout because I didn’t get it right away. I’ve only been to California once, briefly, and if this is a book about race, particularly blackness, it is also about California. I got lost following the text. “That incessant Black History Month loop of barking dogs, gushing fire hoses, and carbuncles oozing blood through two-dollar haircuts, colorless blood spilling down faces shiny with sweat and the light of the evening news, these are the pictures that form our collective 16mm superego. But today I’m all medulla oblongata and I can’t concentrate.” It is dense, as in two sentences per page, like David Foster Wallace, full of lists of images and references I had to look up. But then the prologue ended, the story began and it started to make sense, or else I’d gotten used to Beatty’s style. At any rate, he won me over by chapter one, when it dawned on me that the joke is on all of us. This is satire. Beatty blows the universe and all its comforting wholeness to bits so that we can laugh at it, and maybe, when the tears start to flow, they won’t all be because we guffawed so hard, but because it also hurts. By the end, I still wondered if I was like the unwelcome white woman run out of a black comedy show, laughing, guiltily. Satire is funny with consequences.

Sellout is the main character and narrator, but is he the Sellout? He’s called one by many characters, friend and foe, but he can’t be; he never sells in. Growing up on a farm just outside L.A., with a single black father, a community college sociology professor and psychiatrist, master of his own slave (by the way, Edward Jone’s Washington DC tale, The Known World, is about a black slave owner), who surfs, studies agriculture and re-founds his town, Dickens, when it’s obliterated by exurbia, he doesn’t fit any mold. The first man who calls him a sellout is the biggest one himself. Foy Chesire gets rich off of ideas he steals form Sellout’s dad. (Ex-)girlfriend, Marpessa, also calls him a sellout, but she forsakes college for motherhood, a rapper and gangster, and a bus-driving career, so, takes one to know one. Could Hominy, child actor on The Little Rascals and the slave who indentures himself to Sellout, whose idea it is to re-segregate Dickens (for which Sellout is sued in the Supreme Court), be the ultimate sellout? Perhaps Sellout is another reworked classic, like others Foy writes – The Old Black Man and the Inflatable Winnie the Pooh Swimming Pool, Measured Expectations, Middlemarch Middle of April, I’ll Have Your Money – I Swear, Of Rice and Yen, Uncle Tom’s Condo, The Adventures of Tom Soarer, and The Point Guard in the Rye – except that Foy doesn’t get to write this one.

Whoever The Sellout really is, I enjoyed his story-telling. My favorite scene is of the party on the public bus after Sellout (also affectionately called Bonbon by Marpessa) and Hominy add “for whites only” to the “priority for seniors and disabled” sign. The bus jumps with passengers dancing and drinking, celebrating the momentous and offensive turn of events. “What does it mean, I’m offended?” Bonbon asks, “It’s not even an emotion. What does being offended say about how you feel? No great theatre director ever said to an actor, ‘Okay, this scene calls for some real emotion, no go out there and give me lots of offendedness!’” Taken as it is, the rollicking tale of Bonbon and Hominy is as amusing as any Little Rascals episode, as woo-ing as one of his world famous satsuma oranges. Sometimes the story is laden down with innuendo and double entendre, but, it doesn’t purport to being just a story; it is a farcical mirror, too.

The Sellout is an original. The only thing it sells out to is the future, to absurdity – not futurism or absurdism or any other ideology. It sells out to what’s to come by dreaming, asking questions, never settling, never getting old. Kids play a significant role in this book. Sellout charms them by castrating a bull at Career Day. Their school excels as soon as a whites only school is advertised across the street. They point to the future and help him make his point. Sellout says, “that’s the problem with this generation; they don’t know their history.” He says “history is what stays with you.” And what stays with the characters in this book is the fight and passion that keeps them young. Hominy is one of the oldest characters, but remains young at heart by acting. He doesn’t become his discriminating roles; they’re becoming of him. “We didn’t call it blackface; we called it acting,” he says. Sellout’s dad tells him the two most important questions are, “Who am I? and How may I become myself?” Sellout answers throughout the book by generating more questions, by giving us every opportunity to question ourselves. We may be asked to leave the show because it’s segregated, but that’s the point: to laugh and learn.

Goodnight, Mr. Wodehouse by Faith Sullivan

It is fitting that a book entitled, Goodnight, Mr. Wodehouse, begins with a eulogy written by the deceased. Nell’s farewell to PG Wodehouse, that premier comedic author of the 20th century and her “companion and savior,” and to her dear friends and family is only the beginning. The rest of her story is as heartening to us as PG Wodehouse was to her. Shortly before she dies, she quotes Emily Dickinson, “my friends are my ‘estate.’” I count myself among Nell’s inheritors.

Saying goodbye is a theme in Nell’s life. First she loses her husband, then the babysitter for her only son, Hillyard, then a series of friends, her lover, and finally her own Hilly. Independence is Nell’s hallmark characteristic, which her mother gives her no choice but to acquire, kicking her out of the house at 18. The homestead’s small acreage, she tells Nell, can’t support any more adult bodies. She gets a teaching degree she is almost barred from using in Harvester, Minnesota after her husband dies. Harvester needs a third grade teacher and the Lundeens convince the town a widow has a right to support herself with this work she’s trained to do. The Lundeen family becomes a lifeline for Nell, sticking with her as friends and financial backers even as the school board continues to threaten Nell’s dismissal. In turn, Nell stands by a younger relative who lives with her and Hilly and becomes, with Nell, endeared to the Lundeens, especially Cora. Nell discovers a Wodehouse edition Cora leaves on a book shelf at the Water and Power Company. Cora also introduces Nell to the love of her life, lawyer-cum-Representative John Flynn. John becomes a second father to Hilly, who foregoes college for the army at the brink of WWI. He comes back from war shell shocked, unable to take care of himself. John dies suddenly, right before he and Nell are slated to marry. Then the Lundeens both pass and Nell plays their hospitality forward by befriending two younger women who move into town. They both eventually leave, as do their daughters, but not before Nell becomes like a second mother to both girls. Particularly in older age, Nell reminds me of Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious Ramotswe, and other of his smart, take-charge female characters. She takes the bull by the horns, mourning when those closest to her die, but using the opportunity to find others who are lonely, too, and establish community.

Wodehouse does not play a major role in the plots surrounding Nell, rather, he is inspiration running through the narrative, keeping Nell laughing, dreaming and able to love. Counter Wodehouse with another thread woven into the drama, a mysterious sender who never reveals himself to Nell. At the end, he writes a last note, “Goodbye.” Somehow, she finds she misses him, although his words have tormented Nell throughout her adulthood. “Her life seemed almost as intricately woven as one of Mr. Wodehouse’s novels but, she admitted, without the to-ing and fro-ing, mistaken identities, and cordons of nemeses lined up three deep to bar the road to perfect bliss.” Nell’s life in Harvester may seem quaint at first glance, but she has her own nemeses, like bigotry again women who read and appreciate the arts and discrimination against her personal decisions, even from her own Aunt Martha. She stands up for her son, who left town a hero and returns an outcast, and for a gay man run out of town after a play he puts on, regardless of how well it was received. She does not wish any honor, nor a more cosmopolitan existence. She makes her world large through reading books and immersing herself in life with friends.

I don’t think the author’s intention is to make a bold statement with this read. She makes a subtle statement, however, through Nell’s example, about the nature of salvation. Nell is careful as she steps in to aid her friends never to intrude or overstep bounds. She values what she has learned from making her own way and does not want to take that chance away from anyone. Rather, Faith Sullivan gives us what Wodehouse gives Nell: relief, escape. Art saves by lifting us out of what is into what could be, as it does for Nell, for Hilly with his harmonica, as painting does for Larry Lundeen, stories do for Agatha and plays do for Shelly. Wodehouse’s salvation may not be intervention in the usual sense, but it is palpable. “And slowly, in the most irresistible way, the breath went out of her as she felt his weight, as so often before, rousing her and carrying her away.” She, too, is ever available to those who come to her, and, most often, the first thing she offers is one of his books. I think I’ll go and check one out myself, perhaps Love Among the Chickens, the first of his Nell finds.

Meet Me Halfway: Milwaukee Stories by Jennifer Morales

 

Meet Me Halfway is a command. In these Milwaukee stories, Jennifer Morales meets us halfway with her characters, demanding we, too, meet her halfway by laying on the table our own assumptions and fears. What we receive for our efforts is a hopeful glimpse into a community interwoven by grief. (Think Crash the movie, but optimistic instead of sadistic.) “Netania pulled on Bee-Bee’s hand, bending toward her. ‘Meet me halfway, will you?’” Netania, a lesbian, is leaning in for a kiss she’s not sure will be well received by this non-lesbian friend. We never know if she gets the kiss or not. That’s how this book is: each story ends without a clear conclusion, leaving us to finish out the story with our own. It’s as though we’re written in, unable to remain innocent bystanders.

At the center of all the stories is Johnquell. He gets the first line. “Johnquell’s neck is broken and chances are he won’t walk again.” Revolving around him are the neighbor he was helping when he got injured and her grumpy friend. There’s his mom, sister and aunt Bee-Bee. There’s a substitute teacher Johnquell dislikes and a long time teacher/mentor he adores. Lastly is his best friend who is motivated by Johnquell to set his sights on a goal and follow through with a determination he lacked when Johnquell was alive. What I liked about each of these characters is their willingness to change. They proactively face their fears and overcome them with help. I particularly enjoyed an encounter between Johnquell’s mother and a woman with a similar name and address. They meet when Johnquell’s mom receives this woman’s mail and returns it to her home. They end up chatting and crying together, strangers, but companions in sorrow. At first, I was skeptical of the serendipity of the meeting, but realized the gravity of the situation, Johnquell’s mom’s world being turned upside down, made the impossible possible. It opened up narrative possibilities Morales handled with aplomb.

Morales also deftly handled many different voices. Most daring is the last voice, Taquan’s. She adopts his slang and syntax. “He [the counselor at the community college to which he applies] be using words I ain’t never heard and I be trying to not let on that most the time I ain’t got a clue what he saying.” Perhaps it isn’t exactly as a real Taquan would say it, but Morales has obviously spent a lot of time and attention on her characters and the real people who inform them.

This book couldn’t have come out at a better time. Morales said it’s often hard to publish books dealing with race, but “hard” is precisely our current political climate. Meet Me Halfway is a command and an invitation, a promise that there is a reward for compromise. And when one party, the author steps up to the plate with an “argument” in the form of well-developed characters and true-to-life plot and style, it is worth it to listen. Now it’s our turn to add to the stories, from our own towns and our own hearts.