Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Little Known

The Little Known, a coming of age novel set in the period just after the assassination of President John Kennedy, was written for the young adult market but there is something here for readers of all ages. On the one hand, the novel’s deeply personal portrayal of the harsh nature of race relations of the time is sure to move younger readers who may have only heard about those days in more general terms. On the other, older readers will be reminded that a great deal of progress has been achieved in the last 50 years.

Things are changing very slowly for the black citizens of little Statenville, Georgia. “Knot” Crews does go to school with white kids now, but he seldom, if ever, dares to speak to one of them, and he lives with his hard-drinking mother in the same segregated part of town in which every Statenville black lives. Blacks and whites do not, by choice of both sides, mix in Statenville.

Near the end of the summer, Knot happens upon a bag of cash tossed aside by a bank robber who is trying to escape the policemen closing in on him. When Knot sees the stacks of $100-dollar bills in the sack ($100,000 worth), he carries the money home knowing full well that his conscious will never allow him to spend it - that he will almost certainly be caught if he ever tries to pass one of the hundreds. Little does Knot know, however, that this money will change his life in ways he could never imagine.

Knot is a soft hearted kid despite the fact that his mother spends more money on booze for herself than she spends on food for him. He is often hungry, and he dresses in the castoff clothing of older relatives, but so does pretty much every other kid in his neighborhood so Knot fits right in. He looks forward to Sunday church services because the old church ladies provide him with a community meal there that beats anything else he will eat during the rest of the week. Some of Knot’s neighbors, though, are unluckier than others, and he decides to use some of his found money to make their lives a little easier. That is when he begins to anonymously mail single hundred dollar bills to those he believes are hurting most.

Thus begin Knot’s valuable, but terribly disappointing, lessons about human nature. Seldom is his money spent for the purpose he gives it. Most of the money he gives away is spent on new television sets, bicycles, toys and liquor rather than on the clothing, food, diapers and home improvements his neighbors so desperately need. Knot is, however, happy to learn that a few hundred dollars can be enough money to give some abused women, white and black alike, the courage to leave their husbands behind for fresh starts with their children someplace else.

The Little Known follows Knot and his neighbors for most of a school year during which the little changes he initiates begin to have a big, cumulative impact on the neighborhood. He learns that money is not the most important thing in the world, that it cannot buy happiness or morality, and that the exact opposite is more often the case than not. Knot might never spend a dime of the bank’s money on himself but the money still manages to teach him most of life’s most important lessons.

Some of the sexual innuendos and implied language in the book are, I think, a little too much for middle school readers, making the book more suitable for high school age readers.

Rated at: 4.0

(E-Book review copy provided by publisher)

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