The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson, 352 pp, RL 4

The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson
Purchased from Barnes & Noble
The Parker Inheritance is a masterfully written mystery with civil rights, racism, segregation, discrimination, the realities of being black in America, in the past and present, and justice at its heart. The mystery of The Parker Inheritance is informed and inspired by (the shadowy character in the book who crafts this chain of clues left for a specific set of players confesses that this book was a favorite of an important person in his life) Ellen Raskin's classic and my childhood favorite, The Westing Game. How Johnson makes all this work together, powerfully and unforgettably, is amazing and I especially appreciate the After Words in the back matter where Johnson shares the evolution of the first chapter of the book. I finished the book, completely in awe of Johnson and what he had accomplished, then went back and read the evolution and was grateful to be reminded of the hard, hard work, the many revisions and the many voices (editor, agent) that went into crafting this masterpiece. It's easy to read a remarkably well written book and think that it entered the world complete and with little effort. It's important, especially if you are an aspiring writer, to be reminded that writing is work, hard work, with many, many revisions.

Twelve-year-old Candice Miller and her mother are spending the summer in Lambert, South Carolina, in the home owned by her recently deceased grandmother. Away from her friends, and her dad (her parents are newly separated) her life is made worse by the fact that she is virtually device free, due to parental and monetary decisions. I always love to see how authors of kid's books handle the challenge of keeping adults out of the story and, increasingly, keep devices out of the story, and Johnson does a believable job with both here. All she has is her dad's ancient iPod loaded with R&B classics. But, Candice is an avid reader, so she has books to keep her company - until she reads them all in the first week there. Fortunately, shy, quiet Brandon Jones from across the street is also a reader and they end up at the library together. I absolutely love the exchange Brandon and Candice have about what books they like to read, "boy" books and "girl" books, and an agreement to share the 20 total books they checked out that ends with Brandon pulling a book from his bag and asking Candice, "Have you read Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret?" 

A letter written to Candice's grandmother, Abigail Caldwell, dated 2007 sets the action in motion in The Parker Inheritance. Unsigned, it is written by someone who loved an African American woman named Siobhan Washington who, along with her parents Enoch and Leanne, was run out of Lambert by "the Allen boys" decades earlier after they threatened the white/black status quo. And this is why, the letter writer says, "I spent thirty years destroying the Allens, step by step." Now, the letter writer is giving a select group of people the opportunity to solve a mystery and help Lambert, "earn back everything I took from they city - a fortune totaling $40 million," a tenth of which will go directly to the person who not only solves the mystery, but shares what he or she learns in the process with the rest of the world.

Where Sam Westing was looking for an heir to pass his fortune onto (go Turtle!) the letter writer is seeking justice, wanting to bring to light the racism, segregation and brutality in a Southern town. As Candice and Brandon follow the scant clues, clues that left Candice's grandmother deploying city workers to tear up new tennis court in the middle of the night, and act that left the people of Lambert thinking she had Alzheimer's, Johnson intersperses their story with the real-time events  of 1957 (and a few before and after) that the letter writer is seeking to bring to light. It is in these passages that Johnson has characters voice opinions that are still important, unresolved issues today. At one point, Enoch and Leanne Washington are discussing Althea Gibson, the first black athlete to cross the color line of international tennis, becoming the first African American player to win a Grand Slam in 1956. Enoch argues that Gibson achieved all success in spite of segregation, and by attending traditionally black colleges, saying, "She didn't need anything from them white folks." To this, Leanne responds, "You mean, except for those white folks who fought so she could even play?" A fair point, although it leaves unspoken the fact that it is white people who enacted segregation to begin with, it also illuminates the depth and complexity of racism in America in a way that young readers can begin to grasp. As Nelson Mandela said, "No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite." 

Another moment from 1957 that struck me and had me reading it again and again comes when Chip Douglas is declaring his love for Siobhan Washington (and his decision to join the NAACP and the civil rights movement) to his father, Adam Douglas, the white athletic director at the town's black high school, a job he was offered in an attempt to meet the "separate but equal" law. A fair man dedicated to his students and the school (and also a man with past that is central to one of the most surprising, intriguing plot threads in this book), Adam Douglas points out to his son all the reasons why it is not safe to marry a black woman and how unfair it would be to subject her to the hate and discrimination they would face. Young and idealistic, Chip continues arguing until Siobhan's father, known as "Dub," short for "W," walks up and Chip greets him with a, "Hey, Dub." When Coach Washington is gone, Coach Douglas says to his son, "I know you think you're better than most whites, but you're not. You mean well, but you're not. To be honest, it's as much my fault as yours - I allowed it. . . That man [Coach Washington] is twice your age - older than me. He's the father of the girl you supposedly love. And you can't address him as Mister? You can't call him Sir? Or even Coach?" While this moment happened in 1956 in the novel, this kind of lack of awareness, lack of understanding of the depth and breadth to which racism and segregation is a part of the fabric of our society is ongoing. The fact that Johnson has made it part of his middle grade novel, a novel that, for the most part, is contemporary, is significant. And, in what feels like a final, if brief, spotlight on why we still struggle with these issues today, after the mystery is solved and the stories of injustice and racism have been told, as the rules required, Candice reflects on the fact that, everyone (reporters) wanted to talk about the secret benefactor, while few wanted to hear about the Allens, the white family that ran the Washingtons out of Lambert, and "even fewer wanted to know about the Washingtons." Talking about racism is difficult, but we need to do the hard thing and talk about it if we want to eradicate it.

As the Candice and Brandon make their way around town and beyond to uncover buried history, they are racially profiled and also see how the possibility of racial profiling affects Brandon's older sister, Tori. And, to all this, Johnson gently, carefully weaves in yet another thread of discrimination when Brandon is bullied, verbally and physically, for being gay. I appreciated how Johnson portrayed Candice's handling of this, both her discovery that Brandon was being bullied and why he was being bullied, especially when she decided that she didn't need know either way. And I love how Johnson then blended this into a (slightly) larger storyline between Candice and her mother and father. I am still gobsmacked by all that Johnson has worked into this highly readable, deeply engrossing, endlessly entertaining mystery that is also an important, clear eyed look at racism and the treatment of black people in America. 

The Parker Inheritance is a book that should be in all classrooms, all libraries, all across America. 

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