It’s funny the things one thinks about in the early morning. After a 2 am feeding, I lay in bed trying to find my way back into dreamland (it’s usually difficult, as once I’m up, I’m up). And I was thinking about the last book I finished, Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones, and how it’s taken me quite a while to sit down and write about it. Because it deserves to be written about. I eventually drifted off to sleep (only to be woken by the wee reader’s grunts around 630 as he stirred but didn’t quite wake until an hour later), but felt that today ought to be the day that I write about this book. And so, here it is.
The stories of three fifth-graders who attend Oglethorpe Elementary are tied to the nightmare of 1979 in Atlanta, when African-American children began vanishing and turning up dead. Tasha is desperately trying to fit in with her classmates (one day she’s buds, the next day, she’s not invited to their sleepover… kids!). Rodney just doesn’t seem to be able to fit in anywhere – at home or at school, but he begins to be friendly with Octavia, the final narrator. The kids tease Octavia for being poor and for the colour of her skin (they call her “Watusi”) but she’s a tough kid and like Rodney, a loner.
Jones has crafted some wonderful characters. The stories of these three children – though schoolmates, they are from different walks of life – weave together issues of class, race, and of trying to fit in at school, as the cloud of fear hangs over the neighbourhood. It is not so much about a plot as it is a delving into their lives, their perceptions of the disappearances, their relationships with their parents and siblings and their classmates. Their fears and troubles are all too real, and I’m not just talking about the possibility of being abducted and murdered. But of those awkward years trying to fit in at school, which Jones so convincingly portrays, and which everyone can easily relate to. I didn’t expect this book to move me the way it did, I didn’t expect that three stories from the perspectives of three children could tell me so much about the way life works. Don’t you just love it when a book overthrows all your expectations?