Sunday, March 20, 2011

Is it possible to change the course of a girl's life?

I am currently reading Adrian Nicole LeBlanc's Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx

Motivation for Reading:
This book is on the list of favorite economics books provided by Planet Money on NPR: Must-Read Economics.  Here is the recommendation by Alex:
One of the best books I read about economics is a book which on the surface has nothing to do with economics. It's the true story of two girls coming of age in the South Bronx. It's riveting and devastating, and lays out better than anything else I've seen or read how the circumstances into which you're born affect your economic future. I think about it all the time.

My Thoughts:
When I began reading non-fiction, I came across a list of books called nonfiction books that read like fiction which is a list of non-fiction books that read like novels. Random Family belongs on this list. The story is so engaging I had to flip to the cover to make sure I was really reading non-fiction.* The book's author Adrian Nicole LeBlanc spent ten years living with and interviewing her characters yet she is completely absent from the book. The book is about her characters. The story is harsh. Young girls are molested for years. They begin having babies of their own at 15. The only method available for supporting themselves seems to be dealing drugs or going on welfare. Their mothers are drug abusers. Their boyfriends and fathers are in prison. Their boyfriends beat them, play crazy head games and engage in power struggles. Their situations are so precarious that an impulsive splurge or even a generous gesture toward someone more desperate can send them into a state of emergency. Their state’s welfare service system is no help. They can sit in a waiting room for six hours with three small children for a three minute meeting that accomplishes nothing.

While reading I kept thinking is it even possible to change the course of these girl’s lives. The problem is no one was there to truly protect them when they were children, and now no one is there to go to for real advice and support. One paragraph that strayed with me is about Coco a 20-year old single mother of three:
Coco’s trips to her mother’s and Lourdes’s (her mother-in-law) were searching expeditions – she needed guidance, but Foxy and Lourdes were in no position to help; similar conflicts ruled their own lives. Still, Coco kept returning to the same places for answers again and again. (Pg. 194)

In addition to this book, I want to point you to a moving Dear Sugar column I stumbled across this weekend. While answering a reader’s question, Sugar tells us about her previous work as a youth advocate. She had been assigned to a group of teenage girls in middle school.
Her mission was to help them succeed in spite of the unspeakably harrowing crap stew they’d been simmering in all of their lives. Succeeding in this context meant getting neither pregnant nor locked up before graduating high school.
It meant eventually holding down a job at Taco Bell or Wal-Mart. She tries to help them by getting the authorities to intervene, to protect them, but no one comes. No one intervenes. She is told there is no money for kids over the age of 12. She changes her advice. She tells the girls to survive it. To endure it. She writes:
But I did not tell her it would stop. I did not promise that anyone would intervene. I told her it would likely go on and she’d have to survive it. That she’d have to find a way within herself to not only escape the shit, but to transcend it, and if she wasn’t able to do that, then her whole life would be shit, forever and ever and ever. I told her that escaping the shit would be hard, but that if she wanted to not make her mother’s life her destiny, she had to be the one to make it happen. She had to do more than hold on. She had to reach. She had to want it more than she’d ever wanted anything. She had to grab like a drowning girl for every good thing that came her way and she had to swim like fuck away from every bad thing. She had to count the years and let them roll by, to grow up and then run as far as she could in the direction of her best and happiest dreams across the bridge that was built by her own desire to heal.

Read Sugar's column. It is amazing.

And read the book too. I wouldn’t call the book amazing, the story is too harsh to be amazing; the story is moving and powerful. I haven't quite finished yet, but I believe Coco, Jessica and their children will endure.  They will survive.

*I can’t help wonder if the book would have been fiction if I'd have tossed it aside thinking the story was too far fetched.


  1. And this is happening every day... in America. How can we think we are an "advanced civilization" and turn a blind eye to this. Our underclass fall farther and farther away and nothing happens. It's a disgrace.

  2. I really enjoyed this book when I read it a couple of years ago -- enough that it's stayed on my bookshelf as a book I want to come back to someday. I think the fact that it reads so much like a novel is part of the power. It's easy to forget these are real people, and when the realization that they are comes back, it's really striking.

  3. Webb,
    So true. I heard Tim Wirth, the president of the United Nations Foundation, talking about population growth last week on the radio. He said one of the key ways to control world population growth is to provide education for girls. When women in the poorest countries are given increased access to educational opportunities, birth rates decline. Education includes reading, writing, math, science, job skills training and information on family planning. Not one of the girls in this book graduated from high school and it appeares as though the generation in school now will not graduate either.

  4. Kim,
    I was so excited to read you had read this book. I immediately looked up your review and have to link to it. It is a must read:

    In your review you sum up why this book seems as though it is fiction:

    "There’s a concept in narrative nonfiction coined by, I think, Lee Gutkind, called Story/Information. Basically, a narrative nonfiction piece uses story to trick a reader into absorbing information. The writer tells story for awhile, then switches to sharing information for as long as they believe the reader will pay attention. And then, before they lose the reader with too much “boring” information, they switch back to story and grab the reader again."

    Adrian Nicole Leblanc did not do this; she let her characters story stand alone. I finished the book this week and have to admit I missed not having a couple of chapters of hard facts thrown in.

    Also I have to point out the word “adoption” is not used once in the book. As much as I sympathized with Coco and her children who don’t have a chance, I found Jessica to be exasperating. I couldn’t believe she didn’t consider giving her twin boys, which she had with a married prison guard while in prison, up for adoption. Then she gives the majority of the money from her civil law suit against this guard to her new married boyfriend so he could fix his car…

    This book would make a great book club selection.