Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation by Jonathan Kozol.
Perennial, HarperCollins, New York, first published 1995, my edition 2000.
Adult non-fiction, 286 pages.
NOTE: There are many books with the title Amazing Grace. Also, the initial note explains that there are some differences between editions – I read the paperback version.
A sociological narrative of how drug use and AIDs, among other things, impacted one community.
Kozol attempts to cover many topics within these few hundred pages, touching on racism, classism, AIDs, poverty cycles, medical inequalities, drugs, politics, systemic injustice, religion, childhood, environmental racism, the justice system, hunger, bureaucracy, homelessness, cancer, and other topics. Needless to say, he doesn’t cover all of them fully.
This book and the vast popularity of it on initial publication likely informed many of the more recent, better coverage of these topics, and for that I am grateful. But Kozol meanders through many things without ever making any points, or systematically documenting any particular issue. It’s neither commentary nor journalism, and surely not academia.
The constant awkward drifting of his thoughts became maddening. The book really comes alive in the conversations Kozol has with children, and with a few key adults. While occasionally the additional background information and context he provided were of interest, more often I was reading just to get to the next bit of dialogue.
I do wish to give credit for several things he did in this book that are now common or expected, but weren’t at the time: he acknowledges his whiteness and privilege, he speaks directly to his outsider status, and he seems to allow the major subjects of the book to share their own views even if he doesn’t appear to agree with them. The latter point truly kept me going even if this wasn’t always an interesting read.
Because of the scope, and the variety of characters that sometimes remain, but often change, this is not a good book to set down and picking up again. I had attempted this twice before, and had to abandon it both times – but sitting down at a point when I had large chunks of time to devote to reading, it became a relatively fast read. There are only six chapters but they really cannot be broken up much further – taking an extended stop at a section break often means forgetting briefly mentioned points that will be important in the next section.
Kozol uses amalgamations of some characters which sometimes became confusing – for example, he speaks to many clergy and refers to most as “the priest” so the reader has to try and connect the location to a particular person. Kozol himself gets confused about the various children who have died before or who die during the course of this book, especially those killed in similar ways such as a drug-related execution (whether identity was mistaken or not) or the many who perish in fires.
At the same time, I strongly wished he had entered into fewer stories more deeply as that would have been much more impactful for the reader. I couldn’t help comparing this to books like Just Mercy or Another Day in the Death of America which choose either unique or representative cases and immerse the reader in those stories.
Overall, I’m not a fan of political books, especially those which aren’t marketed as such. One of the many topics Kozol touched on but didn’t dive into was how local politics affected the area he was writing about. He shared his own opinion rather strongly when I would much rather have more thoughts from the residents, although I did appreciate that he called out liberal commenters who were dismissing poverty even though he himself is a liberal.
This is an adult book covering the struggles of a deeply troubled community, so there are many content warnings. Death, rape, drug use, alcoholism, assault, neglect, robbery, imprisonment, cancer, starvation, all of the topics mentioned in the first paragraph, and probably some others I have forgotten.
An aspect I struggle to review is his treatment of hope. Kozol correctly refrains from offering solutions or suggestions himself; he clearly doesn’t know enough about the situation to do so. But his positive light is more highlighting exceptional cases among the dead or dying, and speaking to children about their strong belief in heaven. In an already overloaded “issue” book, adding religious ideas that Kozol himself doesn’t have a strong grasp on seemed a bit much.
I think at the time this was first published, it probably had a much bigger impact, but I struggle to recommend it to modern day readers. Nearly all the topics covered here are now covered in better, more in-depth books. I don’t hesitate to suggest older books which still have beautiful writing or relevant information, but this one struggles to form a point or even document eloquently a particular time and place. It was particularly frustrating because there were enough glimmers of possibility that the reader could see the task was within Kozol’s ability.