Green by Sam Graham-Felsen is a novel about David Greenfeld, a sixth grade boy growing up in Boston in the 90s who doesn’t fit in at school. He’s white and Jewish, and while he’d like to go to private school, his hippie parents who “believe in public school” send him to “the King”, a predominantly African-American middle school in Jamaica Plain. David is a frequent target of bullying and teasing by his classmates, and he unsuccessfully he tries to fit in with his black classmates as he navigates the hierarchy of middle school and the complicated world of race relations.
Unexpectedly, David becomes friends with Marlon, a boy from the nearby projects who stands up for him at lunch one day. They share a love of the Celtics and a desire to test into Boston Latin, a public magnet school that would provide an escape from the King and the promise of success and riches down the road. It’s clear that Marlon has a difficult home life, with a mentally unstable mother, but to a naive David, Marlon is just the best friend he never had.
Green is a memorable coming-of-age story that feels authentic and accurate. Graham-Felson grew up in Boston and, like his main character, attended a school in which he was one of the only white kids. (Graham-Felson later served as President Obama’s chief blogger during the 2008 election, so he knows a little something about race in America.) There are so many little details here that lend the story relatability and immediacy – the rants from David’s cranky, Holocaust-survivor grandfather; his father’s Birkenstocks with socks; the bean sprout sandwich that his father packs him for lunch. But the book goes deeper with an insightful look at what it’s like to be in the minority and yet be favored and treated better than most people around you. The principal looks out for David, storekeepers let him loiter in their stores, and he enjoys a home with luxuries around him that many of his classmates can’t afford. And yet Dave’s life is stressful, especially when he is taunted on the bus or mugged on the basketball court. And when his relationship with Marlon becomes distant and awkward, Dave is more alone than ever.
There is a lot of 90s slang in here – did white kids ever talk like that?
Overall I liked Green and am glad I read it. It can get a little slow, but Graham-Felsen expertly captures those awkward years, especially as lived by someone who had a hard time fitting in.
I listened to Green on audio and I have one major complaint. The narrator, Prentice Onayemi, is very good, but he’s African-American, which seemed like a weird choice for a book about the one white kid in a black school. Why not go with a white narrator? The whole point is that David isn’t black and feels like an outsider. I enjoyed the audio but this bothered me throughout.