One of my students recently read Shawn Goodman’s novel Kindness for Weakness and when she returned it to my classroom library, she told me that she loved it so much that she’d asked for her own copy for Christmas. Her endorsement encouraged me to read the book and I am so glad I did even though it broke my heart. Seriously.
James is fifteen. He lives with his drug-addicted mother and her scummy, drug-addicted boyfriend, Ron, in a one-bedroom trailer. His older brother, Louis, moved out two years ago. James is adrift; he hasn’t got one positive thing going for him. He is “just a lonely kid loping along the street with [his] head down.”
Then his brother offers him a job and James, desperate to be a part of Louis’ life, accepts. Problem is, the job is dealing drugs and James gets caught. He won’t rat out his brother, so he’s thrown into Morton, a juvenile facility.
There is nothing good about his new reality. James thinks
I am a loser, I am scared and weak. I want to call Mr. Pfeffer and ask him what I’m supposed to do. I want to talk to him over cold root beers, and have him tell me that everything will be okay. I want him to give me new books, enough to last twelve months, so I can disappear into the pages and not have to deal with this place. I could read one book after the other, stopping only to eat, sleep, and do school or chores or whatever it is they do here.
But James does learns the rules and in some ways he comes into his own at Morton. There are a couple of guards who are compassionate and make an effort to teach the young men in their charge that there is always an alternative. Despite his circumstances, James starts to consider what his future might look like.
I want to go to college…I want to live in a dorm where no one will know where I came from or who I was at my old high school. I want to start over and see the world outside of Dunkirk. I want to take writing classes.
James also reaches out to his old English teacher, Mr. Pfeffer, and the two exchange letters. James takes comfort in literature, and I have a soft spot for any character who loves books. James strives to stay out of trouble because he wants to get out and make something of his life.
Shawn Goodman actually worked in New York’s juvenile justice system and this experience gives Kindness for Weakness a real feeling of authenticity, but it is James that is the emotional center of this book. He is a believable, sympathetic character. I fell in love with him at the very beginning and rooted for him until the book’s devastating conclusion.