Every now and then we read a book that seems to warrant more than a standard review—even a starred one. That was Janie and Betsy’s experience recently when they both read Ordinary Hazards, Nikki Grimes’ verse memoir, at about the same time. Emails flew back and forth: “We should have a Newbery-buzz style discussion about this!”
Nikki Grimes is one of our favorite authors, and with Ordinary Hazards she lets the reader into personal depths hitherto unknown. She defines “Memoir” as “a work of imperfect memory in which you meticulously capture all that you can recall, and use informed imagination to fill in what remains.” There are reasons why she can’t remember long stretches of her childhood, as you’ll see in our discussion.
Janie: Most of us, fortunately, have not had to experience this level of trauma in our early years. In Grimes’s case, it started with her mother, a paranoid schizophrenic alcoholic (kind of a triple whammy). When Nikki was about five, her parents divorced. When she was seven, her mother was hospitalized and Nikki and her older sister Carol endured a series of terrible foster homes. Eventually they were separated and Nikki was placed with a family who loved and nurtured her for a little over two years. Then her mother, apparently stabilized, wanted her back. But things weren’t better at home—in fact, they were worse, for now there was a stepfather involved.
This would all be an exercise in sensationalism if it weren’t for the author’s faith. She gives us a hint what we’re in for with an introductory poem:
I’ve cracked the past/ like a door./ Things long forgotten/ keep slipping through,/ like the angels who appeared at night to visit me/ when I was two or three:/ bright lights sent/ as silent proof/ that God was always/ near.
The darkness of night contrasted with the flutter of divine promise gives this book its power. I found it both harrowing and thrilling. What were your impressions, Betsy?
Betsy: I love your description, Janie: “the darkness of night contrasted with the flutter of divine promise.” Yes, indeed. Nothing good happens at night, but Nikki keeps reminding herself (and her readers) that God is watching out for her. I’ve described other books this way, but Ordinary Hazards is one of the best examples of a “beautiful book about an ugly subject” that I can think of. Sometimes memoirs (especially contemporary ones) wallow in remembered sadness or misery. This memoir takes remembered sadness and misery and holds it up to the present (redemptive) light.
This is a book for which we would offer some definite cautions or considerations. In fact, my library system had it shelved in the J-shelves (juvenile), and I’ve urged the library staff to move it to the adult section (our library system doesn’t have a teen nonfiction section, where it probably best fits). I’m not going to argue that it’s a must read, but it’s certainly a worthwhile one that Christians, in particular, shouldn’t avoid just because it’s “messy.” We can speak to the particular concerns in a minute, but why is a book like this—a book that obviously brings up some disturbing situations—important for Christians to read? Why shouldn’t we just spend our time reading Christian fiction or stories of missionaries?
Janie: Oh wow—that’s a loaded question. Christian fiction and nonfiction can inspire and encourage us, and of course we need that. But “messy” topics, depending on the way they’re presented, can deepen us. I wouldn’t recommend a steady diet of depressing fiction or true crime because it can color the way you see the essential goodness of the world God created. But as we know that world has become corrupt in countless ways, both subtle and blatant. Ordinary Hazards is ultimately an inspiring story, because it shows how this girl with so many strikes against her nonetheless grew in faith and made something beautiful of her life. But following her through all those valleys should increase our sympathy for others and warn us about possible missteps in our own lives. We also need to be reminded, from time to time, of just how evil sin is, especially in people who seem normal and even nice.
Betsy: You’re right, Janie. Unfortunately, evil and sin aren’t limited to the big, bad guys of history, like Hitler. We’re all sinners, without hope save in God’s grace and Christ’s work on our behalf. Every Falling Star (a boy’s memoir of his time in North Korea; see link to our review below) is another picture of this same dynamic. Even “good” people are prone to temptation, to the worst sins, especially when they are desperate. It’s notable that both of those memoirs portray the main character being rescued out of darkness. And it’s also notable that the Lord protected Nikki from a dark future, no matter how dark her childhood looked at times.
Readers are no doubt wondering at this point just what that darkness entailed. I’ll say this for the book: poetry is an emotionally arresting form of communication. The brevity forces authors to choose precisely the right words to communicate both action and feeling. Nikki’s poem about the sexual abuse she suffered from her stepfather isn’t as graphically descriptive as some modern YA novels might portray. However, the emotional resonance of the verse format makes those scenes darkly troubling on a different level. Nikki doesn’t dwell overly long on this portion of her childhood, nor does she avoid it or reduce its effect on her. What did you think of her treatment of the abuse she suffered? (And it wasn’t limited to sexual abuse—that’s simply the part that will make most parents want to save this book for older teens.) How does her poetry format enhance the good even as it makes the bad more troubling?
Janie: I don’t know that it makes the bad more troubling. You’re right about how poetry can be subtle about what actually happened, even while enhancing the emotional impact. A naïve reader may even be unsure about what, exactly, happened. But another thing the verse form does is give structure to the experience—and thereby, meaning. This is a thing that happened, and though the author may not understand why, or just how Romans 8:28 might apply, she knows it is part of who she is and grace is still at work.
I think her relationship with her mother is even more troubling, because it took place over many years when Nikki was especially vulnerable, and it leaves the reader wondering just what to make of this person. Her mental illness explains a lot, or perhaps all, of the difficulties in that relationship, but the hurt she caused her daughter is wrenching. She ignores the danger signs in her second husband (as too many women do), she continually talks down Nikki’s writing talent, she even throws away her notebooks. The failures of Nikki’s grandmother and dad are troubling too—although her dad comes through for her later.
With all this gloom and doom, what do you see as the greatest value of this particular book, Betsy?
Betsy: You’re absolutely right, Janie. Her mother is completely inept as a mother, and it is heartbreaking to watch/read. And yet, this is a book that I found profoundly moving, one I think is definitely worth reading (for older teens and up). Perhaps the greatest value is simply Nikki’s own voice throughout: she never gives up hope, she recognizes moments of grace throughout her story. If Nikki, as the victim, can see that light in her story, it should encourage the reader also to look up. In an era of voyeuristic YA drama, a wallowing in despair and victimhood, it is refreshing to see someone look at harsh reality honestly AND hopefully.
- Besides some disturbing events, readers should also be advised that at times Nikki is understandably angry and uses some harsh language. The author is channeling her youthful self, not the mature Christian self.
- Overall, we would give this book a rating of 4.75, with a worldview/moral value of 4.5 and a literary value of 5.
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Also at Redeemed Reader:
- We’ve reviewed other teen novels with harsh themes and redemptive messages: see Every Falling Star, *Disappeared, and *What the Night Sings.
- Other books by Nikki Grimes: *Voices of Christmas, One Last Word, Garvey’s Choice, and *The Watcher.
Related Links on the Web:
- See Janie’s interview with Nikki Grimes in WORLD Magazine.
An asterisk (*) indicates a Starred Review.