Book Review: Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones (Audiobook narrated by ensemble)
It’s 1979 in Atlanta, Georgia, and someone is kidnapping–and killing–black children. How this terror haunts one fifth-grade classroom is told through three different perspectives. Tasha, whose parents are “living apart” for a while. A painfully intelligent boy named Rodney who does not actually consider himself lucky to still have his father at home. And Octavia, better known as Sweet-Pea by her family and Watusi by her classmates. She’s the darkest-skinned child in the classroom, and is ridiculed by them all, but she has a spirit that outshines everyone.
The Atlanta child murders of 1979 to 1980 were a real thing that overshadowed the author’s own childhood. Jones clearly remembers what it was to be in fifth grade and relates those emotions with raw detail, but she also brings along an educated adult’s understanding of race and race relations in the American south. This all combines to create a powerful story that sweeps the reader away to another place and time while simultaneously leaving them with greater understanding.
The book is divided into three sections. Each child’s tale is told through a different narrative method. Tasha’s uses third person. Rodney’s second person, where the reader is told “you are” in an attempt to put the reader closer into Rodney’s shoes. Finally, Octavia’s is told in first person. Tasha’s story covers the first part of the school year, Rodney’s the second, and Octavia’s goes through January. It’s an interesting narrative choice that ultimately works. The reader sees three different reactions to the child murders and race relations at three different points in the crisis, in addition to the children’s observations of other people’s reactions. It provides a multi-layered perspective that clearly demonstrates the complexity of all points the story touches upon: crime, race relations, broken families, class issues, and even just the process of growing up.
I appreciate the narrative complexity that Jones chose, but I do feel the story told suffers a bit. I identified so much more strongly with Octavia than either of the other two children because her voice and personality were able to shine through so much more clearly. Of course, it’s possible that this is the whole point. In fact, it does feel a bit like the whole book is just building up to Octavia’s story. But although I had a similar level of attachment to Tasha, I simply didn’t feel that way for Rodney. Part of that could have been the narrator chosen for Rodney. His voice was rather flat and dull without the nuance of the other two narrators. But I don’t think that the second person narrative tense helped much. Thankfully, Rodney’s portion of the book was quick, and the other two sections more than made up for it.
Speaking of the other two narrators, I feel bad that I was unable to find any of the ensemble’s names. The women who narrated Tasha and Octavia did a phenomenal job. They captured both the age and the dialect of the children without once slipping into a tone that could be perceived of as false or mocking. They truly embodied the little girls, and I felt I got something extra from listening to the audiobook, which is precisely how it should feel. It’s unfortunate that the narrator for Rodney failed to do the same thing, providing a rather lackluster, mediocre performance.
The social justice commentary enmeshed in the book is brilliant. One cannot possibly read this book and not see how racism and entrenched classism negatively impacts children and families. Even at ten, these children get it that the media and police care less about them getting kidnapped that they would if they were white. Even at ten the children have already learned racism so well that they ostracize the darkest child in their class. (This book made me very interested in reading more about racism within the black community). Most powerful to me, though, particularly after reading the books in The Real Help Reading Project, is how subtly Jones demonstrates the difficult choices parents and other adults must make to provide what is best for their children and how that is exacerbated by inequality. I’d be more clear, but that would give away the ending of the book. Suffice to say it’s a powerful message presented in a subtle manner through a little girl with whom it is impossible not to establish a connection.
Overall this is an engaging, thought-provoking piece of historical fiction. It brings the reader directly into a classroom of fifth graders to see how not just a kidnapping and killing spree but also enmeshed racism and sexism impact the present and future of children. Recommended to fans of historical and literary fiction.
4 out of 5 stars