In this novel, a black eighth-grader is pulled into the hopelessness of Buffalo’s ghetto.
Julian Stewart Jr., always called JuJu, is 13 years old and 6 feet tall when his large family moves to “the worst part of the ghetto,” Buffalo’s East Side, in the mid-1980s. In their old neighborhood, life was tough, but people looked out for each other. The East Side is different, demanding constant toughness. JuJu is thoughtful, wants to be a writer, and worries about who he’ll have to become in the ghetto. Whites use police and their constant harassment to protect themselves “from us bad blacks”; other blacks discourage advancement: “Most people in the ghetto tell you, ‘You ain’t gon’ be shit, and you dumb, and black, and no good.’ ” JuJu writes his thoughts in a notebook, reads, and nurtures a desire to escape. But to make friends he has to go along with their petty crimes, which puts him in danger from the police. At home, JuJu tries to protect his sisters and Mama, who works hard but sometimes leaves the kids for days—a $20 bill taped to the TV screen—when she has a new boyfriend. Then crack cocaine hits the East Side, making what was bad exponentially worse. After a family tragedy, JuJu is newly determined to define his life for himself. In his debut novel, Pettigrew speaks with an authentic, compelling voice, as when describing the East Side: “If you ever been here, you’d know it’s filthy, and overgrown, and dilapidated, and uncared for….If you ever been here, you’d know it smells of a heavy dankness, coming off all them manufacturing plants, in the summer. You’d know the old broken-down houses smell like mold, stale air, lead paint, and plaster cover-ups.” Pettigrew persuasively makes his case about the array of forces trapping blacks in poverty and crime, with many heartbreaking examples. These points do, however, become repetitive, whereas JuJu’s transformation occurs in a few all-too-brief paragraphs.
Vivid and poignant, with an ending that could use more illumination.