Monday, 23 November 2015

Hush by Jacqueline Woodson

There's a lot in this book, and it's very subtly done. On the surface, it's about a family that has gone into witness protection, as seen through the viewpoint of the youngest daughter. They've all had to leave everything behind, including many of the things that made up their self-identities as people. It's also about discovering who you are when your reference points have been ripped away.

They're in witness protection because the father of the family, a long-time police officer who identified strongly with his job, witnessed two white police officers shooting and killing an unarmed black kid. When identities clash, partly because he can't help but see his two daughters in that dead teenager, he testifies against his fellow policeman, sending the whole family into hiding. He has lost his identity connected to his job, the brotherhood of being a police officer, and spirals into depression.

The mother was a teacher, and strongly part of her larger family and community, and loses that as well, finding new meaning in religion that demands much, but in turn gives a way of thinking about the world that makes the trials part of something larger.

The older daughter is angry that her life was ripped away, that her boyfriend turned on her. She looks for escape, pushing back against the very need for secrecy. The youngest daughter, once named Toswiah, now named Evie, tries to figure out how she feels about her father testifying, about the move and the secrecy, the loss of her name and her best friend.

It's about race, and identity, about doing the right thing and the hard thing, or sometimes the easy thing or the secretive thing. Evie/Toswiah has the ordinary dislocation of moving in the middle of your school years, but compounded by the entire lack of connection to the places and people who were part of who she was.

For a young adult novel, it's a difficult book. Not in writing style, but Woodson packs a lot of things to think about into a very small number of pages. It's challenging, and lamentably timely, given that the idea of white police officers panicking and killing black teenagers has not gone away in the thirteen years since the book was published.

There's a lot of room for thought that the author has left for the reader, time to think about how place plays into identity, how the very physical fact of the people and the climate and the buildings are all part of who we are. I remember the last time I moved, under much easier circumstances, but the dislocation of having my personal geography at sea for a while. My husband and I would bump into each other as we were turning a corner walking down the street, because we hadn't yet learned our own rhythms in the new space, let alone gotten to the place where we knew each others. 

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