Book Review: Jacob’s Ghetto
Book Reviewed by Robert Fleming
Usually commercial young adult novels steer clear of thorny issues, such as drug addiction, gang violence, racial profiling, or poverty. This one does not. Travis Peagler, the author and youngest of seven kids, was born in a low-income neighborhood on the east side of Dayton, Ohio. The author has seen a lot of the misery and suffering that comes with disadvantaged conditions, which forms the foundation of the plot of this scripted novel, Jacob’s Ghetto.
In the novel, Jacob, 10, lives in a crime-ridden, poor community that takes no prisoners. He wants to make himself a success so he can escape the Hood with his drug-addicted mother, Keisha. His mother uses a wide variety of drugs, crack, coke, heroin, and usually can be found in a stupor. Her son has a best pal, Kenny, 8, who believes that Jason will get out of the ghetto by his smarts. Both boys realize their community is not a place for young aspiring Black boys without bad intentions and criminal inclinations.
True to his themes of uplift and opportunity, Peagler has revitalized the archetypes of ghetto life, transforming them into meaningful symbols. “There are many exceptionally gifted young people in the ghettos across this country and I pray that they not only discover their talent, but also find a way to use it to escape and maybe one day change the harsh environment that they came from,” he writes.
Most cities have their share of gangs and their violence. In Peagler’s novel, we have the Circle, a sinister gang with its leader, Gino, and his bloodthirsty second-in-command, Ja’have. The gang wants to recruit both boys, but Jacob refuses despite the threats by Ja’have. In fact, the killer puts a gun to Jacob’s head and is about to fire until Gino calms him down.
It seems poverty is the mother of invention. Jacob doesn’t do his homework, but he writes all the time in a notebook. His teacher notices he’s hungry, complaining that there’s no food at home. She arranges to place a lunch in his backpack daily so he can eat. His pal, Kenny, hands him an entry form for a writing contest, consisting of a cash prize and a book deal. Jacob delights at the chance to move away from this hellish area.
Optimism abounds in this short work as Jacob’s mother is redeemed, joins the church and renounces her evil ways. She even meets a man, Keenan, who takes her out, while Gino watches them nearby. Gino got her on dope and fathered her son, Jacob. It turns out Keenan has known Gino since first grade, were best friends, until they chose different paths. Keenan also offers to get Keisha and Jacob a place uptown, but she refuses. Later, Gino ambushes her while she is leaving for her new job and injects her with a “hot shot,” leaving her for dead.
However, Jacob is a tough, young survivor. While he hates his life, he realizes the evil of the Hood are not for him. He sees his mother struggle through rehab, his best friend killed, and learns his true identity. Still, nothing stops him. Peagler has created a taut morality tale for the young, writing short, snappy scenes from ground level, and mixing fact and fiction into a wise contemporary fable for our times. This is a story constructed on “talent birthed from a place of pain and torment.” We cheer Jacob as we do all young Black kids trapped but soldiering on in such places.