In Long Way Down, a grief-stricken and confused 15-year-old in “the projects” has a desperate choice to make after the death of his brother.
Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds. Simon & Schuster, 2017, 306 pages
Reading Level: YA, ages 12-15
Recommended for: ages 16-up
Note: This novel falls under our definition of “discussion starters.” Click here for our rationale for reviewing such books.
Two things we know right away: William Holloman, age 15, is called Will by his friends. His brother is Shawn; Shawn is 18, and day before yesterday Shawn was shot. And killed. Will didn’t see it but he heard the shots, and after the usual duck-and-cover, he and his friend ran to the scene “to count the bodies. This time there was only one.” Consumed by grief, Will turns to the only source of wisdom he knows: the Rules. This is the code of conduct learned on the street and passed down—not necessarily from father to son but in Will’s case from brother to brother. Rule 1: Don’t cry. Rule 2: Don’t snitch. Rule 3: Get revenge. “They weren’t meant to be broken. They were meant for the broken to follow.”
Accordingly, after deciding on the murderer’s identity and motive (with very slender evidence), Will finds his brother’s gun. Then he steps into the elevator of his apartment building and pushes the L button. But at every floor the car stops and someone else gets on: Buck, a former kingpen; Dani, a former classmate; Will’s Uncle Mark; Will’s own father . . . the problem is, all these people are dead. Shot, every one, accidentally or not. All joining Will for that
Jason Reynolds, in this verse novel as well as in Ghost, Patina, and When I Was the Greatest, succeeds in making a foreign culture (foreign to white midwesterners, at least) somewhat understandable. Though it stretches credulity to present five of the protagonist’s friends and family members as victims of gun violence, what about the murder rate in Chicago, particularly among the black community? Reynolds blames no one, except maybe those “rules,” designed to help men be men in a culture that neglects them otherwise. But Will can live up to his name and make a choice. At the final page we don’t know what it will be, but maybe he’ll listen to his mother this time: when you’re walking in the nighttime,/ make sure the nighttime/ ain’t walking into you.
If not, we feel the tragedy of another aching loss, and God feels it too.
It feels like God/ be flashing photos/ of his children,/ awkward,/ amazing,/ tucked in his wallet/ for the world/ to see.
But the world/ don’t wanna see/ no kids
and God ain’t no pushy parent/ so he just folds/ and snaps us shut.
Cautions: Language (one instance of the f-word, two s-words, numerous mild profanity—but no misuses of God’s name)
Overall Rating: 4.25 (out of 5)
- Worldview/moral value: 4
- Artistic value: 4.5