Monday, September 9, 2013

Kindness for Weakness by Shawn Goodman

I have never before read a book where the author considers apologizing for the book in the author’s note. (I’ve read too many books where I felt the author should have considered apologizing; that’s for another review.) But a sort of apologizing is what Shawn Goodman does at the end of his powerful young adult novel, Kindness for Weakness:
“I wish I could offer an apology for the fact that this such a sad book…”
I say to Mr. Goodman: No apology necessary. Sadness is real, and so, unfortunately, is the despair and violence that often accompany it. And while we need stories that give us hope, stories to push us through the tunnel and into the light, we also need stories that acknowledge the light is sometimes faint and sometimes eclipsed by the darkness, and thus we also need stories that end ambiguously, or even bleakly.

Here is a hard truth about the life of James, the teenage protagonist of Kindness for Weakness: his life sucks. He lives a broken life with a broken mother and her abusive boyfriend, who breaks James every chance he gets. James idolizes the physical prowess and swagger of his older brother, Louis, but Louis left their home and his life when Mom’s new boyfriend entered. James’s only refuge is in the books he reads and discusses with his teacher, Mr. Pfeffer.  (Their relationship reminds me of the relationship between Leonard Peacock and his teacher Herr Silverman in Matthew Quick’s recent novel Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, another sometimes sad book that owes no apologies for its ambiguous ending.)

When Louis re-enters James’s life, and offers him a job doing the handoffs for his meth sales, we can predict what happens next: James is arrested and sent to juvenile detention. But what happens to James at The Thomas C. Morton Jr. Residential Center is less than predictable. Life at Morton is often nasty and brutish, as are many of the residents and, sadly, several of the guards. Here James must face the dilemma too many young men face in the real world: How do we survive a brutish reality without losing our humanity? James is a decent kid, but how can he remain decent without corrupt guards and vicious fellow juvenile inmates taking advantage of his decency? In a context where any kindness is seen as weakness, is it possible to defeat the darkness without becoming the darkness?

As Goodman also writes, unapologetically, in his author’s note, “…in the face of violence, showing kindness requires tremendous strength, and is often punished severely. That’s a terrible point…but one that deserves close study.” Kindness for Weakness makes the terrible point powerfully, and we find a terrible beauty to James, in all of his human weakness. Highly recommended.