Gutter Child by Jael Richardson

I’m writing this on November 3, and I’d like to say that’s just coincidence but as the United States wakes up to election day, I am finishing the brand new book, and first time novel, for Jael Richardson. If you don’t know that name let me tell you how she’s made an impact on my life already. She and I first met when she started to talk about the need for diverse books at our school board’s literacy day. We got to know each other better as she began the FOLD festival and I attended learning for the first time to call myself white, middle-aged, heteronormative and cisgendered. Later when I convinced our body of librarians to have her keynote for the Ontario School Library Association at the Superconference, she became a household name for school libraries. Somewhere in there she paused, or delegated or went on some sort of spiritual vision quest in the desert, because she dug deep and found Gutter Child within herself.

I don’t want to go out too far on a limb here but at the risk of inflating your expectations, I think this book may be the answer we need to stop teaching To Kill a Mockingbird in Canadian schools today. It is definitely as impactful as The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline and Scarborough by Catherine Hernandes. It reminds me of the way that both Kekla Magoon’s The Rock and the River and Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give have taken years of conflict and injustice and turned them so that young people, heck ALL people, might finally be able to see things for what they really are.

In this book, I see Richardson’s homage to the work started by The Black Panthers and how the most meaningful way that you can rise above your own feelings of depression and futility is to help others. Richardson intentionally calls out the bleak history of colonialism, the slave trade, the Underground Railroad, and even the evangelical pacifist movement of Martin Luther King, never letting the history shine too brightly as the way forward. Instead each of these tributes is flipped to show the complexity of a series of perceptions, freedom fighting and terrorism, confederation and broken promises, all fuelled by a corrupt and voracious media. I see J.D. Salinger and Anthony Burgess and George Orwell who started riots with their derisive writing about dystopias in a not too distant future. Like 1984, The Catcher in the Rye and A Clockwork Orange, the world Richardson has built in Gutter Child feels so wrong because the fragile seams of our current society are rapidly coming apart.

The circumstances of Elimina’s childhood, and her rise and fall from Mainland’s approval remind me of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees. Richardson’s unpacking what it means as an adult to never have known your family, to be trapped in that longing to know your mother is so tender and full of angst. My heart broke over and over again as Elemina tried to both find and escape her past. There are so many elements of this book that work to create a masterful combination of parable, homage and a hopeful strength that I can’t wait to read the sequel….assuming that we get to know Lima’s next steps, the legacy that she creates for D.J. and whether or not Rowan’s dire straits can ever be rectified.

This is the must-read book of the year and I can’t wait to teach with it.

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