I read As Brave As You some time ago, yet the characters — three dimensional, complicated and memorable — are still very vivid in my mind. This middle grade contemporary novel tells the story of two African-American brothers, 11 year old Genie and his elder brother, Ernie, who spend the summer with their estranged grandparents in rural Virginia while their parents have time alone to work on their marital problems.
We see the story through Genie’s eyes, a thoughtful boy and a worrywart. As Genie tries to understand the world, he writes down a barrage of questions in his notebook. However, without regular access to the Internet, many questions go unanswered. And although he is eager to please, Genie keeps making mistakes that haunt him. He accidentally breaks the wheel of a cherished toy truck that belonged to his late Uncle Wood. He has an even worse mishap in his Grandpop’s ‘nunya bidness’ room. How is he going to put things right?
As well as experiencing these anxieties, Genie also eases into rural life. He tastes homemade grits and too-sweet tea. Grandma is strict and expects her grandsons to help with chores, learning to pick peas from her garden, then sell them at market. The boys also develop a secret, rather unorthodox poop-flinging method to clean up after the dog, Samantha.
Many of the characters are quirky. Ernie, a cool dude, always wears shades and seeks to impress the ladies, yet poignantly struggles with the proposed rite of passage on his fourteenth birthday. We also meet a hypochondriac mother, a dentist who sells ‘celebrity teeth’ at the local market, Crab who goes hunting in the woods for hours yet fails to hit a creature. However, Grandpop is perhaps the most complicated of all. A proud blind man who carries a gun, he is self-sufficient yet vulnerable, full of contradictions and love for his family. It is the developing relationship between Grandpop and Genie that beats as the heart of the story.
Despite the lack of reliable access to Google, some deep questions that Genie raises are answered over the course of the summer. Why had he not met Grandpop before this trip? Why did no-one tell Genie that Grandpop was blind? Why does Dad not want to talk to his own father? What is the untold story about Uncle Wood? And what happened, long ago, that forged his grandparents’ characters? We are gently reminded of the injustices of the African-American past that still reach out and affect the present. And as Genie learns about bravery in its many forms, he also finds bravery within himself.
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