Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Keeping the Night Watch by Hope Anita Smith and illustrated by E. B. Lewis

In this sequel to The Way a Door Closes, poems and watercolors illustrate the conflicting feelings of 13-year-old C. J. and his family. C.J.'s father, who had walked out on his family, has now come back. In the meantime, C. J. has stepped into the "man of the family" role captured in the book's title. He isn't about to drop back to childhood, especially when he doesn't trust his father not to hurt the family again. C. J. protects himself by holding on to anger because forgiveness could lead to more pain.
His eyes are constantly
waving the white flag of surrender,
but I am like a gunfighter in the Old West.
I walk around with my words drawn,
ready to fire.

The first set of poems are collected as "Fall." In the "Spring" that follows, C. J. falls for a girl. When he calls her,
My words walk with a sure step.
They are cocky,
strut across the telephone lines,
and never look down.
Until Maya picks up.
Then the first word stops,
getting caught in my throat.
And every word that comes after
plows into the one in front of it.
Fifty-two-word pile up.

But C. J. is still torn between his pride and his fear of giving in to his love for his father. Even after the rest of the family have found a new balance, he hangs on the edge of the family. One day he eavesdrops as his father has a heart-to-heart talk with his little brother about women and love, then realizes his brother isn't even there and the message was meant for him. And, at last, C. J. is ready to trust again.

This 73 page book is clearly a black family, but just as clearly, the poems speak to universal human needs for forgiveness, trust, and love. In his response to his father's flaws and strength to try again, C. J. learns the meaning of manhood. The depths of insight flow conversationally and even humorously as a believable teenager's thoughts. Lewis' paintings are a perfect complement, capturing symbolism and feeling in portraits of a real family.

Stories told through poems have become more common in recent years, but few are as moving as this. You'll find Keeping the Night Watch in the VBPL catalog and on the Teen fiction shelves. However, the book that preceded it, The Way a Door Closes, is in the 800s.

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