Thursday, September 20, 2012

Fire in the Ashes ~ Jonathan Kozol review

Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America
August 28, 2012
368 pages
add to Goodreads/buy from Book Depo/or Amazon

While I usually write my own synopses for reviews I post, as this is a nonfiction book and one that tells not just one story - or just one person's story, I've decided to use the description from the publisher, Crown Publishing:

In this powerful and culminating work about a group of inner-city children he has known for many years, Jonathan Kozol returns to the scene of his prize-winning books Rachel and Her Children and Amazing Grace, and to the children he has vividly portrayed, to share with us their fascinating journeys and unexpected victories as they grow into adulthood.

For nearly fifty years Jonathan has pricked the conscience of his readers by laying bare the savage inequalities inflicted upon children for no reason but the accident of being born to poverty within a wealthy nation. A winner of the National Book Award, the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, and countless other honors, he has persistently crossed the lines of class and race, first as a teacher, then as the author of tender and heart-breaking books about the children he has called “the outcasts of our nation’s ingenuity.” But Jonathan is not a distant and detached reporter. His own life has been radically transformed by the children who have trusted and befriended him.

Never has this intimate acquaintance with his subjects been more apparent, or more stirring, than in Fire in the Ashes, as Jonathan tells the stories of young men and women who have come of age in one of the most destitute communities of the United States. Some of them never do recover from the battering they undergo in their early years, but many more battle back with fierce and, often, jubilant determination to overcome the formidable obstacles they face. As we watch these glorious children grow into the fullness of a healthy and contributive maturity, they ignite a flame of hope, not only for themselves, but for our society.

The urgent issues that confront our urban schools – a devastating race-gap, a pathological regime of obsessive testing and drilling students for exams instead of giving them the rich curriculum that excites a love of learning – are interwoven through these stories. Why certain children rise above it all, graduate from high school and do well in college, while others are defeated by the time they enter adolescence, lies at the essence of this work.

Jonathan Kozol is the author of Death at an Early Age, Savage Inequalities, and other books on children and their education. He has been called “today’s most eloquent spokesman for America’s disenfranchised.” But he believes young people speak most eloquently for themselves; and in this book, so full of the vitality and spontaneity of youth, we hear their testimony.

Familiar with the author from having heard him speak and having read Amazing Grace, I was immediately interested in Fire in the Ashes.  I wasn't naive enough to think that every child talked of in Amazing Grace - or any of Kozol's other books - would be doing well now if they'd been doing well then or better now if they weren't then.

Yet, I wanted to know.

While someone who's read all of Kozol's other work will likely get more from reading of Pineapple or those from St Anne's, it's not necessary for reading, understanding or enjoying this book.

Kozol writes of the children - and in some cases the families - in Fire in the Ashes, of their childhood, or lack of a childhood with such honesty and kindness. Though he's writing about children in Mott Haven that continues to be the poorest section, of the poorest borough (the Bronx) in New York, he doesn't fall into a trap that seems like it would be all too easy: he never seems to pity them, nor is he at all condescending.

That's not to say that Fire in the Ashes cherry picks only the success stories, or the children and/or families whose lives have turned out as well as could be expected. Some have turned out better, probably, than I could have expected. Others, not nearly as much.

The author is not forgiving - or perhaps not altogether forgiving - of their transgressions. They've made mistakes and he's ready to admit it - and show them. But he's also going to show that they weren't necessarily mistakes made out of foolishness, carelessness or youthful indiscretion. At least, not in the same way they would be of someone under different circumstances and/or of different financial means.

More, perhaps, than his previous book, Fire in the Ashes shoes that while the circumstances do not make the decisions (good or bad) for the children and teens, they certainly contribute.

These two quotes don't appear until the Epilogue, but I believe they do a brilliant job summarizing what this book - and really Jonathan Kozol's message - is about:
"[C]harity has never been a substitute, not in any amplitude, for systematic justice and systematic equity in public education." -pg 304
"Charity and chance and narrow selectivity are not  the way to educate children of a genuine democracy." -pg 304

This is really a great read. It has a great message, one that's important to hear and important to be able to put with human faces-slash-stories the way that Fire in the Ashes does.

Rating: 9/10

Thank you to the publisher for my copy of this book for review


  1. I'm not familiar with any of his work, but I may check it out. It sounds powerful and informative.

    1. It absolutely is. I hope that if you do check it out, you enjoy :)

      Thanks for reading and commenting!


Book Trailer Friday [@RandomHouse @TransworldBooks]

Beth Dorey-Stein's From the Corner of the Oval  - a tale of being the White House stenographer during the Obama administration will be ...