A Wish After Midnight by Zetta Elliott
AmazonEncore, 2008 (Currently Available)
Genre: Speculative Fiction
Face Value: There are things I really like about this cover, but you have to look kind of closely. It’s not particularly eye-catching at first – there’s so much going on that it all kind of blends together. I really like the two different girls photos, and I like the visual concept of contemporary images on the front and historical images on the back. But it’s hard, without a closer look, to notice any of this detail. I could see it blending in on a shelf unless someone pointed out to you how totally amazing it was ahead of time.
Does it Break the Slate? Yes! Definitely yes! Genna is without a doubt a Slatebreaker at heart. She’s not only a girl of action and deeply loyal, she’s incredibly thoughtful, and takes every decision she makes or perspective she has seriously. So often a girl who travels back in time is only there to passively experience her surroundings, offering the reader a generic view of a specific moment in time, but Genna takes an active role in her surroundings, fighting to stay alive, safe and respected at a time when none of those liberties were a guarantee (or even a likelihood) for a young black woman.
Who would we give it to? You should read this book if you are interested in any of the following: a compelling and complicated depiction of time travel; an intricate and well researched narrative about life for African-Americans in Brooklyn during the Civil War or a thoughtful and unflinching perspective on race and poverty in today’s world. This book shares a lot of similarities with Octavia Butler’s Kindred in that it addresses the concept of time travel with all of the attention that a science fiction reader would want paid to the logistics of that travel, but acknowledging that time travel means something very different, and can distinctly dangerous, based on the traveler’s skin color.
Review: When we first meet our protagonist, Genna, she is struggling against circumstances she can’t control. Her father and grandmother have left. Her mother is overworked, exhausted and angry. Her older brother and sister are getting into all kinds of trouble, leaving Genna as the primary caregiver for her youngest brother, Tyjuan. There’s no money and they might lose their apartment. Genna’s trying to study hard and stay focused on her dream of going to college and becoming a psychologist, but it’s hard. She takes refuge in her studies, the library and the Botanic Garden, tossing pennies into its fountain and making wishes that she’s not sure will ever come true. Sometimes something good will happen (she gets a well-paying baby-sitting job, she starts to fall for a wonderful boy named Judah who is also falling for her) but she can never seem to get ahead of the bad things that happen. After a particularly bad series of events results in Genna’s running for refuge in the garden in the middle of the night, a wish gone wrong sends her and Judah back in time, to 1863. Genna and Judah find themselves separated, without any documents in the midst of the Civil War.
I love the way Elliot gives of plenty of time to understand Genna and her world before she sends her back in time. The first third of the book goes by before Genna’s wish takes her back to 1863, so we get much more than a snapshot of who she is in her reality before everything she knows is transformed by the time. Because of this, the story was much more about how this one particular girl responded to a seemingly impossible situation, as opposed to the main character being a blank slate upon which the reader can project themselves. Genna’s experiences in Brooklyn in 2000 inform her actions and reactions when she finds herself in Brooklyn in 1863.
A Wish After Midnight gives us an honest look at race and poverty in the contemporary United States in a profoundly memorable way that I really don’t see all that often in YA lit. Elliot effectively portrays the problems with society at large and the societal systems of racism and classism that perpetuate themselves, making the problems bigger than any one villain. For example, Genna meets Hannah, a wealthy, liberal white mother while she’s in the garden, who she befriends and starts babysitting for. This infuriates Genna’s mother, who refuses to let her spend time with Hannah because “she didn’t raise her daughters to play mammy to Miss Anne and her little white brats.” Genna disagrees with her mother, and babysits for Hannah’s son anyway, but she also understands where she’s coming from. She explains:
“Hannah’s not like the white people Mama talks about. She helps me because I need the help, and I guess she thinks I deserve it. But sometimes I get the feeling she wishes I were more messed up – like that Tyjuan really was my baby or that I couldn’t read or write. She wants to do more for me – that’s what it is – and I won’t let her. Not ‘cause I don’t need the help, but ‘cause I want to do some things for myself”
Genna’s not only doing things for herself, she’s figuring things out for herself. She’s navigating her circumstances, understanding the inherent unfairness of the world she lives in, and trying to figure out how to deal with it the best she can. Solutions aren’t handed out easily, though I ended the book totally believing in Genna’s ability to rise above it
The same is true when we’re back in 1863. Instead of giving us one “evil personified” slave owner, or effectively reducing the debate to the “good” northerners and “bad” southerners, we see a complex, wide reaching system of anger and oppression. She doesn’t shy away from the horror of the situation – the descriptions of what happened to Genna’s first friend Mattie, for example, is particularly devastating. But it’s not just a voyeuristic recounting of how bad slavery was, we’re getting a deeply embedded, complicated look at the time, and how hard it was for anybody to do the right thing. Just as in 2000, class is given as much weight as race in depicting the struggles for survival. The recently freed slaves had to come north with basically nothing, meaning they were dependent on the charity of (often white) strangers, The Irish, living in poverty, were angry about fighting for the end of slavery, especially when wealthier abolitionists (including the ostensibly “good” character Dr. Brant) were paying their way out of the army, culminating in the New York Draft Riots. Elliot does a tremendous job of creating multifaceted characters and really showing the reader their range of responses to the horrors and inequities of slavery and war. Her representations of the societal systems of oppression in 1863 demonstrate a direct link to those same systems in 2000 (without having to spell it out in capital letters for the reader).
I couldn’t stop thinking about this book after I finished it. We see the obvious danger Genna faces as a young black woman in 1863, but we’re also plenty aware of the danger her race and gender put her in in the present day at well. As the best writers do, Elliot makes a compelling and thought-provoking statement about race, gender and class, getting her reader to think on a large scale about these systems of oppression, through an utterly believable, compelling and dynamic character.
Reviewed from copy purchased at Changing Hands Bookstore.