In Allegedly, Mary is living in a group home just out from “baby jail.” Through excerpts from court records and other materials, we learn she was convicted at age nine of killing a baby in her mother’s care. (Mary is black, and the baby was white, which factored into how she was portrayed by the press.) Mary goes about numbed to the world, her only bright spot spending time with her boyfriend Ted at the nursing home where they do community service. Then Mary gets pregnant, and her priorities shift from surviving the group home to finding a way to keep her baby by going to college. But is that a pipe dream for someone as notorious as she is? Will telling the truth of what happened be enough to save her child?
Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds is a novel in verse. Even at 306 pages, it is a one-sitting read with carefully crafted narrative voices.
Shaun was shot and killed. According to the rules, Shaun’s 15-year-old brother Will can’t cry or snitch — instead, he must shoot the one responsible. He gets Shaun’s gun and presses the elevator button to leave his apartment building and go shoot the man he knows must be Shaun’s killer. But on the way down to the lobby, he is haunted by the ghosts of friends and family killed by guns. They show Will the short, violent path his life might take if he follows the rules as they did. Will he follow that path or choose a different life?
Two books about the consequences of murder enter the ring. Both books tug on the reader’s heartstrings with first person narrators who have lived through the trauma of losing a loved one and are trying to find a way forward.
And the winner is…
Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds
In Allegedly, Tiffany D. Jackson has created a powerful narrative voice, the group home setting is vivid, and the characters are distinct. Mary works hard toward her goals, and she’s strong enough to endure through the setbacks in a world that punishes her at every turn. I rooted for her as she struggled to find love of any kind in such a cruel world. But the ending undid much of my sympathy, and I felt manipulated by the unreliable narrator. (Trigger warning for graphic scenes of child abuse and other violence.)
Despite the spare, short-poem format of Long Way Down, Reynolds finds strong images to paint Will’s neighborhood, which has been torn apart by gun violence. “Blood soaking into a T-shirt, blue jeans, and boots/ looks a lot like chocolate syrup/when the glow from the streetlights hit it.” I worried for Will as he contemplated his choices and wondered if the cycle of violence would ever end. Despite the appearance of the ghosts, this story felt less manipulative than Allegedly.