by Zetta Elliot. 2009. (review copy) "I just want people to see all of who I am," says Genna, a 15 year old Black girl living in Brooklyn in 2001. She finds a little peace in the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, needing space from her mom who hates white people, the kids at school who think she isn't black enough, and her drug dealing brother and his friends. She throws coins in the fountain and makes wishes... and then one wish comes true. She lands back in Brooklyn in 1863 and becomes tangled up in new friendships that test her ideas of freedom, justice, safety and loyalty. She meets Paul, a blue-eyed, light-skinned Black teen who falls in love with her, and she finds her 2001 boyfriend Judah, who also has traveled back in time. 1863 in Brooklyn is the time of the race riots, which Genna experiences from the home of her white employer. She has a good friend who is Irish and who has a Black boyfriend. They are mixed up in the middle of the riots and Martha flees to Genna's house after her boyfriend gets murdered by the mod.
What I like most about the A Wish After Midnight is its complexity. Elliot doesn't allow simple stereotypes to rule the plot. There is no simple delineation between race, ethnicity and moral behavior. Everyone has their good side and their bad side. Genna struggles to figure out how to survive, how to chart her course, and with whom to align her loyalty, but she doesn't find any easy answers.
I think the book is challenging and thought provoking on many levels, but the surprises Genna finds as people around her behave differently than she expects based on their race are the most compelling parts of the story for me. Genna works as a nanny to a white doctor and his wife. She finds the wife to be simpering, wimpy and foolish, until an Irish mob of rioters come to the front door and doc's wife stands up to them to protect her household, which now includes white, Black and Irish.
Genna is puzzled by Paul, whose white father runs the shipyard but who flees the riots on the docks when he is tormented for being Black. She can't quite piece his blue eyes with his Black identity but she begins to open her mind to the complexity through their friendship. She makes friends with Martha, an Irish girl trash picking for food, and doesn't realize Martha's boyfriend is Black until Martha flees the rioters seeking safety with Genna after he is murdered.
The doctor she works for wants to train her as a nurse but talks down to her about her limited capacities based on his understanding of her race. She feels a whirling mixture of rage, hurt, pride, loyalty, gratitude, hope, confusion and disappointment and fear in her dealings with him as she lives in his house, cares for his son, and learns a medical trade under his guidance. One of Genna's strengths is that she refuses to use simple categories for people even when everyone around her offers the typical labels.
Genna is able to expand her vision of humanity through these friendships and working relationships, and we are witness to the experience. I didn't know much about the race riots of 1863 so I greatly appreciated the historical side to the novel. I think middle and high school students reading this novel will find a lot to discuss and consider. It would be a great book club book for teens.
Elliot is a published poet and has an award winning picture book out titled Bird. She is a professor of African American studies at Mt. Holyoke College.
Interview at Shelfari,
Interview at ColorOnline.
Book trailer on YouTube.
Doret's review is here.