In this verse novel, readers meet 10-year-old John Paul “Paulie” Sanders Jr., a white boy who is contending with an onslaught of familial grief during an era of overwhelming racial tension in 1970s Houston.
The authentic narrative finds its setting within the 1972 fight to desegregate the Houston school district. However, this is far from the novel’s focus; Toalson trains her lens on the multifaceted tensions within Paulie’s family during this time. The story begins with the murder of his Vietnam-vet father, rumored to be revenge for his father’s drunken murder of a white man in defense of a black man. This sends Paulie’s mother deeper into an ongoing struggle with alcoholism and depression, so his aunt Bee, principal of a white elementary school in the midst of desegregating, steps in to take care of Paulie, his older sister, Charlie, and their dog. With so much loss and grief swirling around them, combined with the rage of a white community perceiving itself as under siege, where will they find the inner resources to heal? Toalson looks to take advantage of the form’s ability to convey weighty, sometimes-conflicting emotions, exemplified in his grandmother’s statement that “Love is / a strange thing, Paulie.” An ambitious, lengthy exploration of the power of family, transformative relationships, and adapting to changing circumstances, this often feels like a trilogy of conflicts jampacked into one binding.
A gridlocked, busy intersection of becoming that leaves as many questions as answers. (Historical verse fiction. 10-14)