________________ CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 14 . . . . December 4, 2009

cover

A Wish After Midnight.

Zetta Elliott.
Brooklyn, NY: Rosetta Press (zettaelliott.wordpress.com/rosetta-press/), 2008.
243 pp., pbk., $11.99 (US).
ISBN 978-1441474247.

Grades 7-10 / Ages 12-15.

Review by Darleen Golke.

***½ /4

excerpt:

Silence and shadows surround me. I pull myself up from the ground and try to think of an explanation for what I have just seen. I quickly scan the garden for traces of silver, but instead a flash of red catches my eye. Something small is lying on the ground, a few feet away from the fountain. It glints in the moonlight and I move toward it, but a cloud covers the moon and I have to fumble for it in the dark. My fingers feel only the cold, hard stone and so I stop, stand back, and wait for the noon to return. The cloud doesn't budge but then I see it shining again -- what else could it be besides a penny? A worthless coin someone dropped and never bothered to pick up. I reach for it again, but once again it disappears in darkness that wasn't there just a moment ago. Now I am determined. I can feel a wish trembling on my lips.

The moon slides out of the clouds like a hand pulled from a glove. The penny glows and then dies, like a fiery spark. I reach for it and this time I feel it beneath my fingertips. Though it is strangely hot, I pick it up then move closer to the fountain, into the light of the noon. The penny cools in my palm it grows dull and old even though it was flashing like a new coin just a minute ago. I stare at the penny and the longer I stare the less certain I feel that my wish will ever come true. I close my hand into a fist and squeeze the round, hard piece of copper. I want to hurl it into the still water, but it weights in my hand like a rock. The longer I hold it, the heavier it becomes, and I have to struggle to raise my hand to my shoulder. For a moment I stand frozen, the penny in my hand, my hand poised beside my head. The fountain blurs, and I blink back my tears. Then with all the strength I can muster I throw the penny up into the air.

Everything happens at once.

The penny cuts through the air in a slow, silent arc. I hear a motor humming behind me and I know security has found me at last. I am ready to run but I have to wait until the penny hits the water. Headlights slice through the darkness and shine bright in my eyes. The penny is still falling, the air is thick and cool like gel. Then the voices return. Voices, too many voices, and they are not whispering softly any more, they are telling me to RUN they are telling me to HIDE they are ordering me to FREEZE. This time the voices come with hands that tug at every inch of my body. TAKE ME WITH YOU WAIT FOR ME DON'T LOOK BACK JUST RUN RUN RUN. My heart is pounding and the penny is still falling and I'm begging them to let me stay just until my wish hits the water. I am blinded by the headlights and the voices keep getting louder and the penny is still falling and then one sound rises above all the others -- a single shot is fired and my body sinks to the ground. The last thing I hear is a tiny splash as my penny slips beneath the silvery surface of the water.

 

Genna Colon, almost 16, lives with Mama and three siblings in a first floor apartment in Brooklyn, "five people living in two rooms" with a tiny bathroom and kitchen. Mama works long hours at the hospital; Papi returned to Panama 10 years ago after losing his job, failing to find another, and finally taking out his frustration by hitting Mama. Genna, "plain and dark, too tall and too smart and too shy to talk to anybody," wants to "go to college and become a psychiatrist," to escape from the crowded living conditions, the poverty, the violence, and the drugs that are part of her daily life. Unlike her party-girl sister and drug-runner brother, Genna focuses on school and prefers to spend time at the library or in the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens across the street from her apartment building. The bright spots in her life are her baby brother whom she happily babysits and a recent immigrant from Jamaica, Judah, who attends Genna's school and becomes the love interest in her life.

     Genna often wishes she "could live inside someone else's body" and live where she does not "have to feel ashamed of [her] home and clothes." After a fight with Mama, Genna hides in her peaceful garden sanctuary only to discover the truth in the old adage, "be careful what you wish for," when she awakens to find herself transported back to 1860s Brooklyn, just before Lincoln's January 1, 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. Rescued from thugs who mean to sell her to slave traders, Genna receives care and medical attention at the Howard Orphanage in Weeksville. In pain and confused, Genna discovers she has been beaten "off and on for at least a couple of hours" with a paddle, "a long, thick piece of wood" with "about a dozen holes drilled through it. Each time it hits the skin, just as many blisters are raised."

     As Genna recovers, she gradually learns about her new world while faking amnesia to avoid answering the myriad of questions posed by the orphanage staff. Technically, at almost 16 years of age, Genna is too old to remain at the orphanage. Fortunately, Dr. Brant who treats her injuries, hires her to care for his young son after he discovers Genna's interest in studying psychiatry. Although he believes "education is the key to the advancement of colored people," Dr. Brant assumes Genna will train as a nurse because "research has demonstrated that children, women, and Blacks have smaller brains ergo less intelligence." Oblivious to Genna's fury at his 19th century attitudes, he takes her on his rounds to begin her nursing training. After six months "trapped in this world," daily growing further from her roots, Genna settles into the Brant household, takes care of baby Henry, teaches the housekeeper to read and accepts her mothering, develops a friendship with a young Irish girl, attracts the attention of Paul, the "bastard son of a wealthy white merchant," and generally lives as comfortably as possible under the circumstances.

     On Dr. Brant's regular rounds to the Weeksville orphanage, they encounter a typhoid fever outbreak among the escaped slaves sheltered there. As they treat the sick and dying, Genna discovers Judah who had been running for six months trying to "find a way to freedom, trying to find his way back" to her across the century and through the horrors of enslavement. Unfortunately, Judah's experiences have encouraged him to join the African Civilization Society, and he urges Genna to "emancipate yourself from mental slavery" and join him in going to Liberia where "we can build a life together." Uncertain, Genna weighs the alternatives, but events trump personal decisions.

     "New York City is burning;" the New York Draft Riots, July 13-16, 1863, pit the poor white men being drafted against the wealthy like Dr. Brant who, for $300, can afford to buy their way out of the Civil War draft. Blacks, exempt from the draft, become scapegoats for the anger, and the rioting spreads to Brooklyn. "It was the draft . . . not the coloreds," the mob hated, but fuelled by fury and a sense of injustice, the mob mindlessly trashes and burns property in its wake. When it descends upon the Brant home, Genna respects Mrs. Brant's courageous, albeit foolish, attempts to reason with the mob. Only when shots are fired from neighbouring houses does the rabble disperse, much to the disgust of their leader. When Judah wanders into the fray, Genna risks her safety to rescue him, and they run to city hall where the police protect a group of blacks from the rampaging mob. Judah drags them away from the safety net, thinking to find freedom; however, the mob leader attacks Genna and badly wounds her. As Genna's consciousness fades, she hears voices again as she did before travelling back in time. "Darkness swallows me up completely, and I am gone," away from Judah, from the pain and horror of the 19th century. Her "senses come back slowly;" she is back in the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens Monday, September 10, 2001 and returns home to her mother. "As I step into my old building and into my mother's embrace, I tell myself this is only the beginning of the story, not the end. Judah will find his way back to me."

     Poet, playwright, author, and educator, Elliott moved to Brooklyn from Toronto in 1994 to earn a PhD in American Studies at NYU. Her picture book, Bird, received positive recognition including the 2005 Honour Award in Lee & Low Books' New Voices Contest, the 2009 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award, and the 2009 ALSC Notable Children's Books list. Although Elliott had written essays, poems, plays, and a novella, she tried unsuccessfully for five years to find a publisher and/or agent before self-publishing this historical, speculative fiction YA novel. The novel unfolds in two sections, contemporary 21st century Brooklyn where, incidentally, Elliott now lives, and historical 19th century Brooklyn, and it employs a time travel device featuring wishes, pennies, and whispering voices. In a September 2009 interview with Amy Bowllan, Elliott explains why choosing an African American female protagonist flows realistically from her own experience. "A lot of my early experiences were shaped by some form of exclusion; whether it was an issue of class, racial, or gender difference, I learned how it felt to be on the outside of things."

     Genna emerges as a well-rounded, strong and resourceful young woman whose focus on achieving her goals and being her own person transcends the difficulties she faces both in the present and in the past. Faced with the physical and emotional dislocation of time travel, Genna retains her pragmatism and gets on with the business of daily living, always hoping to return home to her Brooklyn. She balances living in her own black community with her contacts in the white community consciously avoiding her mother's "white folks are evil" attitude and Judah's "back to Africa" passions. Secondary characters in both worlds embody the good and bad of humanity and act as foils to underscore Genna's coming of age. Elliott highlights Brooklyn in both time frames and offers a glimpse into history with the little-known 1863 New York Draft Riots during the Civil War era. Racism, poverty, slavery, drugs, prejudices, and violence number among the themes of the novel. Spacing, margins, paragraph indentations, and some inconsistencies in details in the plot do not detract significantly from the power of the story or the appeal of Genna as the protagonist, but they might have been caught by a professional editor. The novel should find a ready audience among teen readers and be a useful addition to school and public libraries.

     A consummate educator, Elliott provides a Study Guide with "Discussion Topics" and "Activities and Research" suggestions for readers, teachers, and librarians. She returns Genna to 21st century Brooklyn on September 10, 2001, conveniently, to facilitate the planned sequel, Judah's Tale.

Highly Recommended.

Darleen Golke, a former high school teacher-librarian, writes from her home in Abbotsford, BC.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.

Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.
 

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