Monday, October 19, 2009

Review: Riot by Walter Dean Myers

Found via: A Chair, a Fireplace & a Tea Cozy

No Non-fiction Monday this week for me :-( All of my non-fiction reading this week has been older and not-necessarily-YA Civil War stuff.

So instead I'll give you some Civil War historical fiction!

Riot looks at the New York City draft riots of 1863, when the draft was first instituted in the United States, and included the provision that rather than being drafted a man could give the government $300 in order to pay for a replacement. Considering that an average monthly salary back in the day would hover around $10 (and could be significantly less if you were of a disliked class, such as a free Black man or an Irish immigrant), only the rich would be able to afford avoiding the draft. This just heightened existing class and racial tensions, since many of those who would now be forced to fight viewed it as a rich man's war fought by poor men on behalf of black men.

At the center of this particular story is Claire, the daughter of a white Irish mother and an African-American father, who run a nice little hotel with hopes of owning it someday. Claire has fair enough skin that she easily passes for white, though it's generally known in the neighborhood that she's biracial. When the first mutterings of the draft riots begin, a few local hooligans come by Claire's family's hotels, looking for support, but Claire's family is determined to stay out of the fray, insulting the hooligans.

As the city explodes into violence, Claire's parents do everything they can to keep her safe, but Claire is determined to figure out for herself where she fits into this riot: she is Irish, but isn't she also Black? Where should her loyalties lie? And why did this have to devolve into violence in the first place?

I have to admit, I'm not a fan of the screenplay narrative method. I thought it worked for Monster but just fell short here. I felt like we were too removed from everything, from Claire's feelings about her identity to the brief glimpses of the violence. Nothing really connected, and the screenplay format led to some awkward dialogue to explain the background and historical setting that would have been covered in narration in a traditional book. Due to this distance, I felt like this would probably work best for someone who has a bit of working knowledge of the draft riots, and wants an interesting story about the people at the time.
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