Monday, July 19, 2010

Dark Sons

Nikki Grimes' Dark Sons

Ishmael is the beloved only son of Abraham. Despite the anger and jealousy of Abraham’s first wife Sarah, he is secure in the love of his father.

Sam is an adored only child, born to parents who had, after years of miscarriages, given up on their dream of having a child of their own.

One day, three men, angels, appear and tell Abraham that his wife, Sarah, will have a child of her own.

Sam wakes up one normal morning to find that his father has fallen in love with another woman, one who is twenty-five years younger than he is, and white.

Ishmael’s half-brother Isaac is born, and Ishmael soon finds that the limitless love his father had always given him has limits, after all.

Slowly but surely, Sam finds himself replaced by his father’s new wife and their new baby, David.

Within this verse novel the stories of these hurt, lost sons – one modern, one Biblical – are told in tandem. Sam’s story is dominant, and the hurt and loss that he feels as his father moves away from him – emotionally and literally – is haunting. One of the few things that brings him any solace as his world crumbles around him is prayer and his church community, so it’s appropriate that the other first-person voice in this novel is Ishmael, the Biblical son of Abraham, who was dismissed with his mother, Hagar, into the wilderness after the birth of the “promised” child, Isaac.

The novel is divided into separate “books,” alternating Sam’s voice with Ishmael’s. Each book is advanced through a series of short, free-verse poems. The poems from both voices are similar in meter and structure, but a reader can definitely differentiate between Sam’s voice and Ishmael’s. What’s truly great about this work, though, is the similarity between the experiences and emotions, and, ultimately, the conclusions, shared between these two very different young men. Also, the relationship between both narrators and their younger brothers is unexpected but warming – the new babies have, in effect, replaced their older brothers, claiming the fatherly love Ishmael and Sam had enjoyed. However, the “Dark Sons” love the little golden boys who replace them – despite the inevitable jealousy and resentment they feel, Sam and Ishmael love David and Isaac, and even set themselves up as protectors of their younger brothers.

The verse novel format was new to me upon reading this book, and I found that I like it a lot. The poems are brief and written in free verse, and are very readable. The poems and their structure also allowed the story to move more quickly where necessary – each poem functioned like its own chapter within the novel, so it allowed the author to linger on certain points, or skip forward or back to different places when necessary.

I can only describe this novel as haunting. This was one of those stories that left me thinking about the characters, wondering how they were doing, wishing I could help them or talk to them. It also left me wanting to slap a few characters (namely, the deadbeat dads). It was a little disconcerting too, since it left me thinking of Abraham as a deadbeat dad! I remember the story of Abraham and Isaac from Sunday School, and it bothered me to realize that I had never really thought what it must have been like to be Ishmael – to be cast away by his father for doing nothing wrong. I also really liked the relationships between both sets of half-brothers. Sam and Ishmael have both been hurt badly by their fathers, but they show remarkable maturity in their relationships with their younger brothers. One of the saddest aspects of the work was the sorrow both narrators felt when they were separated from their brothers.

This story is great for just about any young adult reader. Fans of poetry will really enjoy the verse novel form, but I think it will also be great for those reluctant to embrace poetry. The poems are brief, simple and easily comprehensible – they are also functional. Sometimes a major objection to poetry is that poems don’t have a “point” – that they’re too hard to figure out. Since these poems all fit in as part of an overall story, the reader already knows what the general focus of the poem is, so some of the intimidating “analysis” aspect of reading poems is eliminated.

Also, this would be excellent for any reader who is experiencing or has experienced a divorce in their family. Sam’s experience in particular is a very realistic look at what it feels like to be “abandoned.” It ought to be required reading for divorcing parents as well, many of whom don’t really quite understand how their choices are impacting their children. This would also be a great way for parents and teens to open up a conversation about divorce or family relationships.

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