Brief Description: 12 yo African American boy learns about Affrilachian history while attending STEM camp
Geographical Setting: Appalachian Mountains, Blue Ridge Mountains, Brooklyn, Bushwick, Gauley Bridge, Gauley Mountain, Kanawha River, New York, New York City, North America, North Carolina, Summerville, United States, West Virginia
Date Range: 1930s, present
Original Publication: 2022
Suitable for Grades: 5-7th
Target Audience: Middle Grade
This recently published book did not immediately catch my attention because it is not marketed as historical fiction. The novel is set in a post-pandemic, Black Lives Matter time frame, as the opening scenes have twelve-year-old African American Javari walking home with his family after participating in a street protest against police violence. (The dates are unspecified.) Javari is a very likeable character, striving to find his way in the world and help his family. His parents value education and encourage his interest in math and the STEM fields. The family struggles to pay the bills amid increasing gentrification in their Brooklyn neighborhood.
The plot is set in motion when Javari goes to STEM camp at a Christian college in the West Virginian Appalachian Mountains. Javari’s apprehension about the southern location of the camp is exacerbated by an altercation he has with a white hillbilly on the long bus ride and the Confederate flag greeting him upon his arrival in the very small fictional town. At camp we are introduced to a paint-by-numbers cast of ethnically diverse characters, where Javari struggles to fit in. When he befriends a local pale-skinned, mischief-making black boy who is not a participant in camp, he is introduced to a whole world of almost hidden and little-known “Affrilachian” history and culture.
The local boy, Cricket, takes Javari under his wing, and shows him not only the natural beauty of the mountains but also introduces him to the various local folks, including the bus-riding white hillbilly. Javari observes and is surprised that the poor locals, black and white, seem to get along with each other. The local black people are not offended by the Confederate flag. A history lesson ensues when Cricket takes Javari to the site of the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Disaster, which killed his grandfather. (The Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Disaster is one of the worst industrial tragedies in American history, with most of the victims being African American.)
The villains in this story are from a rich powerful white family that owns the local coal mine (very destructive to the environment), the general store, the Christian college campus where the STEM camp is held, and just about everything else. That a girl from this family is a also a participant at the STEM camp and on Javari’s team for a competition, leads to an ultimately satisfying reconciliation.
Even though this novel is not set in the past, I recommend this well-written, engaging, coming-of-age story because there are references to a unique and little-known history of African Americans in the Appalachian region. Back matter includes an author’s note detailing events from his own childhood that inspired some episodes in this book. A late revelation that Cricket is gay seems forced to further diversify the cast of characters to include one more marginalized group.