No 334 Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones

In the summer of 1979, the bodies of fourteen-year-old Edward Smith and thirteen-year-old Alfred Adams were discovered in Atlanta, marking the beginning of what would become known as ‘The Atlanta Child Murders’. Between 1979 and 1981, approximately 29 African-American children, teens, and young adults—mostly boys—were kidnapped and murdered. A majority of the killings shared common details and several other killings deemed ‘unrelated’ at the time may have been victims of the same perpetrator. The investigation was closed following the conviction of Wayne Bertram Williams for two of the murders in 1982; after the trial, law enforcement linked Williams to 20 more of the 29 murders, but many believe the murderer may never have been caught.

These killings created an ongoing atmosphere of terror in the Atlanta area and that terror overshadowed the childhood of author Tayari Jones, who was in fifth-grade at the time. Her 2012 novel Leaving Atlanta explores the lives of three fictional children, all sharing one fifth-grade classroom in 1979/ 1980, and details their personal experience of the fear that gripped their neighbourhood over that one fateful year.

Each child’s tale is told through a different narrative voice. The first section is told in the third person and focuses on Tasha, who is struggling to fit in with the cool girls in her class. She has spent all summer practicing her jump rope skills, only to find that when school starts in September, jump rope is considered babyish. Tasha’s parents are in the process of divorcing and her father has moved out, but as the disappearances escalate, he returns to the marital home. His return doesn’t make Tasha feel better, it just reinforces the danger that black children in the neighbourhood are in. Tasha has a crush on classmate Jashante, but when he goes missing, she fears the worst.  

The tears came suddenly and deeply as the enormity of everything pressed her chest and stole her air. She cried for her father’s empty dresser drawers and the TV pictures that had brought him back. Her tears were for deserted playgrounds…and words that wouldn’t be taken back. There was no air.

The focus of the middle section is on Rodney, an intelligent but painfully quiet boy who has few friends and an abusive father. Rodney’s section is told in the second person and although this initially jars, as his story develops, it proves to be an effective and touching choice.  

The final section of the book is narrated by Octavia in the first-person and is the most engaging section of the book. Octavia lives with her single mother and is a pariah at school because her skin is so dark and her family is so poor. Despite this, her narrative voice is vibrant and plucky.  She is the only one in the class to make any effort with Rodney, recognising a kindred spirit, so when he too goes missing, the pain of his loss is overwhelming. Driven by desperate necessity, Octavia’s mother, who works night shifts and has to leave her daughter alone, decides to send Octavia to live with her estranged father in Colorado, giving the book its title.

The structure of the book works well, adding depth to an otherwise quite straightforward coming-of-age story. These children are dealing with the usual trials of growing up – trying to make and maintain friends, broken families, getting your period, having your first crush – yet these rites of passage are played out against the backdrop of constant fear and distrust. Jones captures well the atmosphere of the time and by telling these stories over the course of a year, she is able to explore race relations and societal politics at different stages of the crisis. It is obviously a time that she remembers vividly and the inclusion of a classmate called Tayari Jones is a subtle and respectful touch. As the children watch the images of their missing classmates on the news, Jones delicately points out the entrenched racism and classicism that allowed the killings to go on for so long, without allowing her prose to become didactic.

Leaving Atlanta is a solid book whose structure enhances and elevates its plot and is a multi-layered and engaging piece of recent historical fiction.

Read on: Ebook
Number Read: 412
Number Remaining: 334  

The 746

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

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