Title: The Liberation of Gabriel King
Author: K.L. Going
Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2005
Where I got it: Saw it at the library and borrowed it.
Fear can encompass many different things. A person can be scared of spiders, swinging off the rope swing into the lake, or of bullies. They can even be afraid of the fifth grade. Gabriel King is afraid of all of these things, but if his best friend Frita makes it her mission to help "liberate" Gabe and beat his fears. The summer of 1976 will be the summer Gabe becomes brave, and he has Frita to help him—she's not afraid of much of anything. But as the two friends work through Gabe's list of fears, Gabe realizes she is afraid of some things and needs to work on her own list—but it will take an awful lot of courage to confront the things Frita fears the most.
It's good to read a story set after the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s that deals with racism in the South. There aren't a lot of stories that I've come across in my reading that deal with the post-Jim Crow South, but this late elementary/early middle grade book is one of them. Frita is a black girl living in Georgia, and she has been "integrated" into the white school in Hollowell, where she met Gabe. She is a firecracker, always willing to go on adventures and often having to drag Gabe with her. Despite their remarkable differences from each other, the two are incredibly loyal to each other and the best of friends.
Though most of the book focused on fear and overcoming it, there is a bit of history included within the scant 151 pages of the novel. Readers learn about Jimmy Carter before he became president; I had no idea he was a peanut farmer before he made it to the White House, and I certainly had no idea about his stand against white supremacy. We also take a look at the treatment of African Americans during and after the Civil Rights Movement, though not in great detail.
I also thought it was great that Going did not shy away from using the n-word. It was especially relevant for me to read this right after the whole Mark Twain "let's censor the language because it's offensive to modern readers" thing. The use of that word certainly made an impact on me, not to mention it made the narrative all the more believable. There are some very serious issues that Frita and Gabe have to grapple with, and it forces us as readers to think critically about the situations. And yet, Going still managed to include a good deal of humor and playfulness within the two friends' fear-busting exploits.
There were a few flaws I noticed that detracted from the book for me. Though I thought it was sweet how Gabe didn't really see why Frita's skin color mattered to so many people, I found it difficult to believe that he had never come across racism before, especially having a best friend who would most likely be often on the receiving end of it. He seemed genuinely confused about why white people would treat black people differently, and didn't seem to understand why Frita would be targeted in their community. And his frequent realizations vocalized as "Huh. I'd never thought of it like that" or something similar sounded forced and trite to me—it got irritating.
Though it had its drawbacks, I still liked this story of doing the right thing and gathering courage, even if it means facing your worst fears. The two friends might not have crossed every single thing off their lists, but they certainly learn what it means to be brave.