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Book Report: Street life, gay teen life in the spotlight this week

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columns New Richmond, 54017

New Richmond Wisconsin 127 South Knowles Avenue 54017

My wife grew up in the south side of Chicago in an all-white working class suburb, Oak Lawn. She lived a childhood with good schools, plenty to eat, security.

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Not far away was the south side of Chicago proper. That's the topic of "Street Shadows: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion and Redemption" (Bantam, $25), a riveting autobiography by Jerald Walker that reveals the underside of the Windy City and, thankfully, the final power of redemption.

Walker is a bright black kid growing up in the 1970s. Both his parents are blind and subscribe to a religious cult that was exposed on "Sixty Minutes."

Jerald Walker's teachers tell him how bright he is, how he could easily get into a special school.

Jerald Walker chooses not to be challenged, drops out of school, gets a menial job, begins to drink and snort coke. By the time he's 20, he's a mess.

And then his dope peddler friend is shot to death and Jerald Walker begins to wake up. It's a long and difficult period of recovery, but he's fortunate to have found a friend in his junior college English teacher, Professor Homewood, who loves the stories Walker writes about his experiences on the street.

Homewood is gay and at first Walker and his family thinks he's buttering up Jerald for sexual reasons. Not so. Homewood takes him to Iowa City, Iowa, enrolls him in the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop.

Today, Jerald Walker is an associate professor of English at Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts. He's the author of several articles and essays, is married and has two children.

I first picked up the book because I'm acquainted with the territory. But once I picked it up, I couldn't put it down, for its humor, its pathos, its humility.

Shelby Steele, a fellow black man from Chicago and the author of "The Content of Our Character," writes this about Walker's first book:

"It is a watershed -- perhaps "post racial" -- memoir because it lets us see a black man as Everyman, a man on his way in the world and uninterested in the consolations of blame."

Also, hats off to "Loop Community College" now called Harold Washington Community College, for giving Jerald Walker the leg up.

*****

River Falls author Jonathan Langford just dropped off an interesting young adult novel, "No Going Back" (ZarahemlaBooks.com, $16.95).

I'm not well-acquainted with that subgenre, but my wife taught it for years. She's retired now, so I put her to work reviewing Langford's novel. Here are the results:

"The struggles of gay teens have been dealt with in several readable and recommendable young adult novels, such as Hartinger's 'Geography Club' and M. E. Kerr's 'Deliver us From Evie.'

"Langford offers another sympathetic look at the difficulties homosexual teens face with peers, social life, parents, coming out and thinking about their futures. But he expands the usual perspectives.

"Main character Paul Ficklin, aiming to achieve priesthood in the Mormon (LDS) church, grapples with his promise to avoid behavior that church regards as sin. Readers of any faith that disparages homosexuality will be interested in the discussions Paul has with his bishop (who is also his best friend Chad's father), his LDS peers, and parents in that community, which show how and how not to help lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgendered and straight teens come to terms with faith and sexuality issues.

"Langford uses multiple viewpoints -- Paul's mother, Chad, Chad's mother and father -- to help readers see that everyone's set of personal issues complicates responding humanely to the needs of gay teens.

"Chad's mother, unhappy that her husband's new status as bishop keeps him very busy, at first is incensed to realize that her son has a gay best friend and resents her husband's not being there to help her deal with that.

"Chad decides, after witnessing how fast high school peers are to ridicule and reject Paul, to jeopardize his own peer standing to maintain the friendship.

"And so on. Though the novel emphasizes how loving and supportive adults can help gay teens steer a clearer course through high school years, it also exposes the range of responses one will find among reasonable as well as judgmental people and encourages readers to take their cue from the better examples."

Dave would like to hear from you. Phone him at 426-9554.

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