Child & Adolescent Development: Overview

Review of "America"

By E. R. Frank
Atheneum, 2002
Review by Liz Bass on Jun 7th 2002
America

The impact that America will have on a reader will be proportional to the degree to which he or she buys the political mantra that "we cannot afford to waste one human being." If someone is fully invested in that idea, then America, will be viewed as an outstanding novel. On the other hand, if a reader subscribes to the theory that it costs too much of the national treasure to rescue every hard luck kid that’s out there, then America will get a hearty thumbs down. Readers, I am sure, will part company on their estimation of the book based solely on its premise, which is that all people are worth saving regardless of the cost. In America, that is an unresolved issue and therefore the subject of much debate. In America, it is not an open question.

Young America (who has a half-brother named "Brooklyn") is not the boy next door. For much of the novel, he displays a personality that only a therapist could love. He is angry, confused and mostly silent when asked questions of a personal nature. Despite his best efforts, however, he occasionally does spurt something out. For example, once when asked by a judge why he is in her courtroom, America answers, "I got lost in the system." Another time, a detective asks him, "What’d you do?" and America answers, "Killed somebody."

This kid’s background is the stuff of nightmares. Born to a crack addict mother and of uncertain paternity, he started to grow up pretty well in a foster care arrangement but became derailed at an early age through mishaps that sent him back to his birth mother and then later into life on the streets. Rescued and sent back to his foster mother, America began again to work at a life when he was victimized by a member of his foster mother’s household. After a spectacular exit, he returns to the streets where after a time he is picked up by the police and placed in institutional care.

His life "on the outside" is dreary. The novel thankfully does not dwell on that aspect, but instead, focuses on America’s psyche. It is through his interior monologues and dialogues with Dr. B., his therapist, that we gradually come to know him as an individual, and not just an anonymous street kid.

E.R. Frank asks a lot of her readers. She wants us to stop walking past the boys like America who are huddled against the cold on our city streets and try to find out how they got there. And this particular story about this particular kid makes a compelling case for that kind of action. If you approve of social service salvage efforts, you’ll wind up admiring this kid for surviving all his hostile environments. If you are skeptical about them, you won’t find much in this book except a long whine that everyone has heard before. Regardless of how you weigh in on the issue, I think you’ll certainly come to admire this author for her skill in describing what passes for life in the unpleasant underbelly of America.

 

© 2002 Liz Bass

 

Liz Bass is a retired teacher and principal who lives in Northern California

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