Portia, January 8, 2010 (view all comments by Portia)
No comment, no context, no sociological musings: just the life of a family in their own words. THe most powerful book I have read in many years. For middle class person, this book gives us insight into a world we cannot imagine. And is a challenge to those of us who want to make the world more whole and more just. If we are to all work together to make the world better, we cannot just expect everyone to become like us. This book is a life-changing experience. And although non-fiction, a pleasure to read.
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The central characters of this tale are children. Old before their time and given little chance to be children, but children all the same -- teenagers when we first meet them. The young women and their children contend with everything that comes down on young, poor, Puerto Rican women in this society: child abuse, drugs, jail, police brutality, bearing children when they are still children themselves, parental abuse and neglect, and a poverty that would wear down even the strongest of souls.
One fascinating thing I found when reading this was the way in which the oppression of these young women is a terrible mix of modern, American-style commodification, where women are treated as sex objects, and some women give up sex for shiny new sneakers so they won't look poor -- along with feudal-style type of oppression. Meaning that it's common for one boy to have a main "wife", and a string of secondary girlfriends, kind of like the old Chinese or Biblical model of main wife + concubines. Having a son can bump you up to the status of main wife; LeBlanc reports on one character this way: "One month later, [name omitted to prevent spoilers] gave [more name omitted] his first son. Her position as his wife was secure."
The choices these children are forced to make -- leaving their own children with questionable people, staying in bad relationships because there is no other way to manage motherhood alone -- can and do have terrible impacts on the people you meet in this book. This book will show you, in ways you likely have not read anywhere else, how the decisions these children make, however self-destructive or short-sighted or desparate they can be, are responses to a situation they did not create and and prevented from fundamentally changing. And a world in which they are trapped; just like in feudal villages, where it was common for serfs to spend their whole lives in a three-or-four mile radius, most of these people rarely leave the few square blocks of their neighborhood -- except when they are taken to or are visiting jail.
If you have ever seen young single mothers struggling to survive on minimum wage or welfare and asked yourself, "How do they manage?", this book will tell you -- and it will tell you what price they, and their loved ones, really have to pay.
My one quarrel with this book -- and this is not a spoiler -- is that the author rarely reports on what the characters think of the larger world. What do they think of why society got to be the way it is? Do they dream of changing it? How do they see the choices they are forced to make? The author gets to know her subjects very intimately and goes to greath lengths to report their actions, good and bad and ugly, objectively. But her view of them is somewhat limited by this omission.
Overall, however, this is a fascinating read.
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Scribner Book Company -
by Carol Gilligan,
?Adrian Nicole LeBlanc brings to life a world often resisted. Writing in the tradition of James Agee and Walker Evans, she invites us to see in a new way people whose lives are often despised or dismissed. Random Family reads like a novel. This is a brilliant, original book.?
by Alex Kotlowitz,
?Random Family is a remarkable piece of reportage, an important, up-close window into a tucked-away corner of America. Watching Jessica's and Coco's lives unfold over the course of ten years is by turns unsettling and affecting, and their stories have stayed with me. Adrian Nicole LeBlanc has written a book that's epochal in scope and unflinching in its candor. It's one compelling read.?
by Tracy Kidder,
?This book has a fresh, even original quality. It is a family saga, but of a most unusual kind, an intimate and detailed portrait of a world that is shamefully hidden away. I read it compulsively, thankful for its candor and above all its fascination.?
by Michael J. Agovino, Newsweek,
?What separates ?Random Family? from other accounts of inner-city ?pathology? is how vivid she makes her characters, in their faults as much as in their virtues?.It becomes a thick, dense, rich narrative: literary anthropology that reads like a novel.?
by Tanya Luhrmann, The New York Observer,
?This book makes human the unrelenting problems of the ghetto?. Random Family does not spell out any analytic conclusions, but the reporting does illuminate the lived reality of our social policies.?The precarious world Random Family depicts, the fragility of life and relationships, is probably more like the sweep of human history than most of us realize. It is a sobering thought.?
by Richard Price,
?Somehow managing to be both journalistically objective and novelistically passionate, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc has made a singular contribution to the literature of the American underclass. An unforgettable and intimate portrait of life in the urban trenches, as much about love and longing as it is about the statistics of despair.?
by Anne Fadiman,
?I know no other writer who has dug in as deep as Adrian Nicole LeBlanc. She didn't just report; she burrowed for years into a world she came to know so well that it lost every speck of foreignness. That astonishing intimacy allowed her to view this book's random family as one might view one's own family: with a mixture of exasperation and respect, disappointment and love. If God is in the details, this is a holy book.?
by Janet Maslin, The New York Times,
?The artistry of this frank, enthralling book lies in the utter simplicity - and careful, subtle selectivity - with which she plainly describes the determining events in what will now be unforgettable lives....[W]hat might have been a lurid, discouraging story winds up with backbone and hope?..Random Family reveals more about what keeps people together than what drives them apart.?
by Oscar Hijuelos,
"In the richness, vitality, and visceral power of its prose, Random Family struck me in the same way that Hubert Selby's classic Last Exit to Brooklyn did — with detail-driven force. The stories recounted here, of careening lives and urban struggle, seem both familiar and exotic, for this straightforwardly written, often gripping book reads like a fantastic tale from another world — which happens to be the Bronx. Well done."
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