The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game by Michael Lewis.
W.W. Norton and Company, New York, orig. pub. 2006, my edition 2009.
Adult nonfiction, 340 pages.
Lexile: 980L .
AR Level: 7.2 (worth 19.0 points) .
The story of how the blind side revolutionized football, and a personal story giving one example of the new kind of recruit who is most highly sought after these days in American football.
Before getting into the review, I’ll tell you that I’ve read some of Michael Lewis’ other books – a relative is a fan. This one deals with race and adoption, which is part of why I’ve chosen to review it here. I was given a free copy of this book and decided to read it in part because of the sport enthusiasts I know who enjoyed it, but I myself am not much of a sports fan, which surely colors my opinion.
I think the major problem I had with this book was that Lewis starts out from a white perspective, and really never leaves that viewpoint, even when he’s purportedly trying to get into the minds of his POC characters. The point where this was startlingly clear to me was the first paragraph of Chapter Three, where Big Tony is dramatically driving the boys out of poverty.
Lewis states “Memphis could make you wonder why anyone ever bothered to create laws segregating the races. More than a million people making many millions of individual choices generated an outcome not so different from a law forbidding black people and white people from mingling.” (page 45). The ignorance is startling – clearly Lewis has never heard of redlining and didn’t bother to do even basic research on Black history before writing a book where race has a major influence!
Black history and basic racial and cultural realities aren’t the only area Lewis is lacking in this book. While I admit that this field of study has seen many advancements since the early 2000s, Lewis is completely uninformed about trauma. This is especially clear at the end of the author’s note:
“His memory might be a relative strength in his schoolwork, but it seemed to have neglected to record his own life experiences. When I asked Michael about his past, he claimed not to recall it and couldn’t understand why I found it interesting.” page 339
At the end of the book, page 335 in the edition I read, Lewis admits to something I would have liked to have known on page one. He’s a close personal friend of the Tuohy family. Of course that would have a major impact on his writing style and choices as an author. While he comes to know Michael Oher, that relationship is never deep enough to steer Lewis away from the typical white savior narrative.
This influences the book and I suspect (without having actually seen it) the movie strongly. What has stood out to me the most is the poster for the movie, which also happens to be the title of this particular edition of the book. Reading the book, there are pictures in a middle black and white section, and I came across one that was very interesting. Much like the movie poster cover, it shows Leigh Anne Tuohy walking with Michael Oher. He is wearing his football uniform and holding his helmet in his right hand. She is walking to his left and only comes up to about shoulder height next to him.
That is where the similarities end. The original photograph shows them walking arm in arm on the football field in the direction of a large group of Michael’s teammates. The movie poster cover makes some subtle but charged alterations. Instead of arm in arm, now Leigh Anne has her hand on Michael’s back, steering him. They are looking at each other, but his face is obscured while hers is visible in profile. His left hand is closed while hers is open. And instead of walking into a crowd of his friends, they are crossing an empty field, going toward the light and the bleachers.
I’m sure many will look at these changes and find them meaningless, if they notice a difference at all. Certainly some make sense from a design standpoint. After all, walking into the light of an empty field makes for a cleaner image besides coincidentally being a common Christian metaphor for salvation. It could just be the angle that makes her face visible while his is hidden (not an attempt at dehumanization). Perhaps the change from gentlemanly linked arms to a clenched fist has nothing to do with the dangerous stereotypes against black teenage boys. But it’s far more likely that others beyond just Lewis had an unconscious bias and shaped this image (and narrative) to fit the story that they found most comfortable.
I can’t entirely fault Lewis, a white person who clearly never took the time or effort to seriously educate himself. He’s a sportswriter who outright states that he never expected this book to be popular outside of American football fans. While I seriously disliked this book, it was much more readable than the last book I read about football. At least Lewis didn’t intend to write a book about race and promote white saviorism, even if that is a clear impact of this particular story.
Unfortunately, the ability to write doesn’t fix the major problems this book has with message and tone. It’s a technically readable and certainly interesting story, but from my perspective, it is strongly not recommended. This particular title is written with heavy bias and privilege and manages to both condescend and exceptionalize Oher at the same time. The main reason I even bothered to finish and review it, is because I also have Michael Oher’s own book, “I Beat the Odds” to read, and wanted to review both. Apparently Oher’s adoptive mother has also written a book, but I don’t plan to read that one.