Book Review: Green by Sam Graham-Felsen

With all the humor and awkwardness expected of a coming-of-age novel, Sam Graham-Felsen writes about the parlous nature of life’s important lessons in his debut novel, Green. Set in the years following the L.A. riots which led to some of America’s most harrowing racial conflict, this story illuminates the fragility of adolescent friendship when race, social class and opportunity are so greatly divided.

David Greenfeld is a white boy in Boston, living on the border of one of the poorest neighborhoods and starting his first day at a majority Black middle school. Growing up with part-hippie, part-Harvard alumni parents, Dave’s awareness of the privilege that exists in his life is nuanced, filtered through his distant experiences of prejudice and overt racism which he labels “the force”. Like many budding teenagers, Dave is embarrassed by his family, particularly viewing them as the barrier to his acceptance by his peers. Even more so he is embarrassed by his race, his ‘whiteness’ Rejecting everything they stand for, Dave insists on emulating the mannerisms, speech and interests of those he admires: famous rap artists, basketball players and the most well dressed kids at school—all of whom are Black. The end result is a boy caught between two worlds, unsure of where he belongs at an age where belonging is the only thing that matters.

“So what else?” says Ma. “You meet any nice kids?”

I almost mention Marlon. I look up at the towers, wondering which window is his. I’m still thinking about out strange chat, how he spun around with his giant bag and whispered the only nonwack word I heard all day: Peace.

Marlon Wellings is a Black boy who dreams of escaping the hustle of his ghetto and finding salvation in the halls of Harvard. His goals are set and his focus is unwavering: study hard and follow God. Marlon’s story is mostly experienced through the lens of Dave, where we only touch on the true difficulties he faces: a mother who struggles with mental illness and a society determined to limit his success based solely on the color of his skin. The two boys develop a cautious friendship, based on their shared love of the Boston Celtics, and it is through this relationship that Dave begins to learn the hard lessons about the world around him.

Together the boys weather the various mundane middle school experiences: girls, bullying, personal sexual discovery and religion; but it is the pressure to pass the entrance exam to a prestigious local high school that serves at the novel’s linchpin. Dave and Marlon approach the exam from vastly different circumstances, and it is through this experience that Dave finally begins to understand why Marlon has to fight so hard for what comes so easily to himself.

“You ever know anyone who died?”

“You serious right now?”

My fam’s tiny. Ma’s cut off from her peeps, except for her gay little bro, and pretty much all of Pop’s relatives got smoked in Germany. I don’t even have any cousins. I’ve never been to a funeral.

“I mean, you ever known someone who got killed?” I say. “Like, actually murdered or whatever?”

“Yeah,” he says, looking at my like I’m corked. “More than one. Like three different dudes. ”

“Jesus,” I say. “That’s fucked up.”

“That’s normal,” he says.

Dave struggles to reconcile his feelings about his own skin color with his new understanding of Marlon’s amidst his confusing experiences with ‘the force’ both as a recipient of discrimination and as a bystander to it. What we are left with are the early stages of a white boy learning a valuable lesson about how race, social class and wealth can influence the rest of your life. All in all, Green is an unusual perspective on race, which leaves much of the heaviness to be inferred, focusing on the particular way in which young adults come into the understanding of difference—behind a fogged glass, not yet clarified by experience.

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A review copy of this title was provided by Random House.

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