Review of the Day: The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson
The other day I was asked to come up with ten children’s book equivalents to Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen (which, should anybody ask you, is not for kids). To do this, I wanted to include a range of different kinds of books at different ages. Picture books and nonfiction titles. Early chapter books and poetry. And, of course, socially conscious middle grade novels (books for kids between the ages of 9-12). But as it turns out, books for young people that take a long hard look at systematic oppression in America in the 21st century are nine times out of ten written for young adults. On the surface this makes sense. Parsing the complexity of racist systems requires brains. Still, I wanted to include something on the younger end of the scale. Something that’s interesting and fun, but also manages to bring up some pretty serious issues at the same time. You can see where I’m going with this, and it shouldn’t surprise you that that middle grade novel I selected in the end was, The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson. Until I read that book I’d never encountered a fun, casual middle grade puzzler that was, at the same time, socially conscious regarding the topic of race in America, with a clear, keen sense of how the past affects the present in every way. Come for the puzzle, then. Stay for the biting glimpse of America’s intolerant past.
Candice’s grandmother wasn’t crazy or corrupt or anything like that but try telling that to the residents of Lambert, South Carolina. About ten years ago her grandma used her position in the city to dig up some tennis courts on some kind of a treasure hunt. When nothing was revealed she resigned and helped raise her granddaughter elsewhere. Now Candice and her mother have moved to Lambert, temporarily, for the summer while her father attempts to sell their house after the divorce. Candice knows for a fact that her grandma was never the loon some people in town still consider her to be, and she’s even more convinced of this when she finds a mysterious letter in her old things. A letter that insinuates that there’s a treasure to be found if you just look deep enough into the past. Now with the help of the boy next door, Candice is off to clear grandma’s name, find the treasure, and maybe even save Lambert itself.
The natural comparison this book practically requires in blood is The Westing Game and that’s understandable. There are innumerable similarities. First and foremost, like Raskin’s classic, the clues aren’t linear or even all that comprehensible. This isn’t a book where each clue is neatly tucked away as a little rhyme in a little envelope, one leading to another. The letter contains all the clues and it’s up to the characters to pick that apart. There is good and bad to that. Unlike, say, an Agatha Christie book, the average child reader is not going to be able to figure out these clues on his or her own. You don’t read a book like this to actually solve the mystery yourself. That’s where the other readalike to this title comes in. As the action started to shift more regularly between Enoch Washington, Siobhan Washington, and other people from the past, to our present day heroes, I was reminded strongly of Holes by Louis Sachar. Think about it. The sins of the past have repercussions in the present day and it’s the kids that have to shoulder that burden.
As an author, Varian Johnson doesn’t make this book easy on himself. It would have been the simplest thing in the world to just “Mr. Lemoncello” it and be done with it. You know. Focus on the puzzle, include a single main character with a problem and some bit characters on the side, and keep focused on the goal. Instead, Mr. Johnson prefers to give not just his main characters depth, not just his side characters depth, but the state of the city and, let’s face it, 21st century America as well. The danger he runs in doing this is bogging the story down. He works in a boy who may or may not be gay, divorce, loving but intolerant grandparents, police brutality, the act of passing (and its long-term emotional effects), and much much more. At times it can feel like Mr. Johnson is throwing in everything and the kitchen sink into his story, but as you read on, the plot stuff settles into place. Personally, I read this book in fits and starts, and I can tell you that that is not the way to read “The Parker Inheritance.” This book requires a dedicated, steady read without interruptions. Otherwise you find yourself saying, “Wait. Who’s Siobhan again?”
The author also touches on topics that I’ve never seen any middle grade novel for kids discuss. Take the end of segregation. At one point the grandparents are explaining to our baffled heroes that when the black schools were dissolved it had an detrimental effect on the community. “…if you were black, Perkins was your school.” And they go on to mention that back then high school was like college to them and that it meant something to graduate from there. There are other examples. I’ve been looking for the middle grade equivalent to The Hate U Give for a while now and though this book doesn’t really veer too deeply in that direction, it does address issues of police and the abuse of adults in power. Oh. And it mentions that the Hoo family in The Westing Game is stereotypical. Good points all.
And I liked the character moments. Those little telling details that say so much more about a person than a thousand lines of text ever could. One great example comes in the description of Big Dub. Describing why he was a fan of tennis the book says, “He liked that he didn’t need to depend on anyone else to win a match.” The flashbacks to the past are interesting because in the present day you are seeing everything alongside Candice. You don’t know anything contemporary that she doesn’t know. The past is different. There the reader is omnipotent. You can get into the heads of every player, understand every motivation, and never be left in doubt of why they do what they do. The tradeoff for that kind of knowledge is that the author has to let you have everything in pieces with trust, on the reader’s part, that this is all going to make sense at the end. I am happy to report that though it’s a little shaky at the start, once the author gets going he really sucks the reader in. And, best of all, there’s not a single dangling plot thread left by the close. Plenty of questions for a sequel, oh yes indeed. But nothing dangling.
I’m going to ask you a question now, and I want you to take it seriously. Here goes. Should a book that discusses incredibly serious topics have a sense of humor? The answer to that question is one that I’ve been pondering for a long time. I don’t limit it to books either. What is the role of humor, whatever its bent, in documentaries or novels or anything really? We’re living in an age of peak comedy, but writing a book with serious themes, and then working in some humor, poses a definite risk. Too flippant and the tone of the book is off entirely. The goal of an author unafraid of levity is to use it to break tension, humanize the characters, and endear the written pages to the reader. Yeah it’s a risk, but it’s a risk worth running. The Parker Inheritance isn’t what you’d call a laugh riot, but it definitely keeps things light and, many times, amusing.
It’s all in the title, of course. The Parker Inheritance. It seems on first glance to be a reference to the actual monetary inheritance that would go to the person that solves the puzzle. Like a natural counterpoint to a title like The Westing Game (another story of rich men with multiple names and masks they hide behind). But take a closer look at that word. “Inheritance”. This whole book is about what we inherit from the past. We get the genes of our ancestors, sure, but we can also inherit their prejudices, views, and systems. Systems that ensure that some folks stay at the top and others at the bottom. I know almost no books that have found a way to clarify this point for young readers. Now I have one. It’s not a lot. Not nearly enough, but at least there’s one out there now. The puzzle may be impossible, but nothing about this book is implausible. The new required reading.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
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Notes on the Cover:
Pause for just a moment and admire this cover. Did you notice that all four main characters are featured? Look closely now.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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