This Side of Home, by Renée Watson

This Side of HomeThis Side of Home
by Renée Watson
Pub Date: February 3, 2015

Stories about the last year of high school hold a special place in my heart right now as I watch my oldest niece approaching graduation and making plans for college.

Maya and Nikki Younger are twins who have done everything together. All their lives they have planned their future: they will graduate from high school with amazing grades, go to college at Spelman-a historical black woman’s college, and they will marry their boyfriends they have known all their lives. But like all idealized plans, life has some detours.

First, Maya and Nikki’s best friend/neighbor is forced to move. Second, the family who moves in is white and has a daughter who quickly becomes Nikki’s best friend. Third, the family next door also has a son who is more likeable and cute than Maya is ready to admit. Fourth, the new school principal keeps butting heads with Maya as senior class president. This is not the senior year Maya planned. Instead, Maya is forced to accept other people’s choices and that she can’t always be the model black girl.

I really appreciated this novel. I wasn’t sure I would relate to the main protagonist, Maya, since she seemed so focused on her identity as a black woman, while I am white and grew up in a town that was predominantly white. Still, Renée Watson does a good job of showing this aspect of Maya’s personality while also making her relatable to a wider audience. I admired Maya’s grit, intelligence, and tenacity. She focuses on the importance of family, friendship, and acknowledging history while looking to the future. This story made me think about different cultures, and how difficult the “race” questions can be even today. One of my favorite things about reading fiction is that I’m invited to see the world through a different perspective. This perspective opened my eyes. I am glad I read this book, and highly recommend it to others.

Sterling Bridge, by Chad Robert Parker

Sterling Bridge Chad Robert Parker Cedar FortSterling Bridge
by Chad Robert Parker
Pub Date: November 10, 2015

Admittedly, I am not much of a sports person. I have been known to enjoy a number of sports movies, though, and every once in awhile I’ll give a sports book a try. This debut novel is based on a true story out of Tooele, Utah about a town with its own self-imposed segregation, and a high school football coach looking to bring the two factions together. As I got into the story, I found it was like one part Remember the Titans and one part Follow Me, Boys! (both of which are films I love).

Tooele, Utah in the 1920s was separated between Oldtown and Newtown and this caused animosity from all levels – from the school system, to the kids, to their parents. Sterling Harris is a new teacher and new football coach, intent on getting kids from both sides of town enrolled in the high school and playing football. Naturally it’s the promise of playing football and winning games that invigorates these kids into regularly attending school, doing well in their classes, and not fighting each other based on who came from an Oldtown or Newtown family. Sterling inspires the boys he coaches, and the citizens of Tooele learn to get along better, all while he has to deal with some trials in his personal life. It’s a sweet story that does deserve to be told.

I did have a few quibbles with book. For one, I had trouble determining just what exactly the trouble was in Tooele in 1926 until about halfway through when a Catholic priest character is briefly introduced and gives a run-down of the town climate. Up until then, “Oldtown” and “Newtown” sounded like fake names used as placeholders that the author forgot to take out. I am not from Tooele, so I definitely don’t know the local history, and since the factions in the town weren’t described enough so I could follow the drama, it took me awhile to piece it together. I also felt the author had a lot of stories to tell over the course of almost a decade, not only about the football team and their achievements and setbacks, but also personal stories from the families of the team, and in Sterling’s own life. But I felt they weren’t all given the time and development needed to really make them resonate. Either the author needed to expand on each of these stories to make a longer book, or cut some of these stories and details to focus on the prominent ones to be more effective.

However, the character of Sterling Harris sounds like a fascinating man, and I’m glad his story is getting a novel treatment. Local heroes so often get forgotten, with perhaps a street or building (or in Sterling’s case, a school!) named after them. It’s good and fun to have a fictionalized account of who they were so future generations can get to know these people from the past, and see how those local heroes affect the current generation, and how alike we still are. So while I may have found some faults with the novel itself, I applaud the effort to introduce me and hopefully other readers to a person of interest. It certainly makes me want to investigate into prominent people of the past from my own area to see if a book could come out of their story!

I received an ARC from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.