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Thursday, December 25, 2008

Young Adult "Mr. Touchdown" Featured on Midwest Book Review

Mr. Touchdown
By Lyda Phillips
Young Adult, new edition, Nov. 10, 2008
ISBN 9781605280295 ($13.95, paperback)
ISBN 9781440109768 ($23.95, hardcover)

Reviewed by Susan Marya Baronof for The Midwest Book Review

Star athlete Eddie, his sister, Lakeesha, and two other "Negro" students, hand-picked to enter an all-white high school, are swept into the very heart of the civil rights movement in Memphis, 1965.

Chosen to integrate Forrest High by the NAACP – and his father -- we follow high school junior, Eddie Russell, as he encounters the viciousness of certain white students – the coldness of others – and grapples with the sheer unfairness of leaving his friends and teammates to come to this hostile and dangerous environment. But we also follow Eddie into his own heart, as he struggles to, in his father's words: "…look into the soul of your enemies and find in them something to love."

The richness of this wonderful book, however, doesn't arise simply from its depiction of Eddie and the other black students as they enter a strange new world; we also experience that world as old and familiar, through our other narrator -- popular, white, Forrest High cheerleader, Nancy Martin.

Nancy is smart and confident and just beginning to notice a few teeny, tiny fractures on the fault lines between her and her best friends. Her dreams are changing – expanding – catapulting her to New York and Paris, while theirs are still centered around getting married and settling down. But when it comes to the dreaded integration, Nancy hates the idea just as much as they do. At first, anyway. Because pretty soon, she can't ignore the indignities and humiliations meted out to Eddie and the others. And when the attacks become physical… That's got to be more wrong than integration… Doesn't it?

It's in the interplay of these two characters – solitary, stoical Eddie and impulsive, inquisitive Nancy, that the book becomes bigger and deeper and compellingly human.

Mr. Touchdown is a terrific read. Using vibrantly descriptive language, Lyda Phillips creates a living world of shop class and gym teachers, pep rallies and pompoms, and pulls us right into it. Middle-school students and even their older brothers and sisters will enjoy the breezy dialogue, fast-moving plot, and genuinely shocking twists and turns. Rooting her story of radical social change in the familiar routines of high school, the author gives us a book that never abandons its characters, and it succeeds as both social commentary and adolescent rite-of-passage.

It's also a warm and big-hearted book that honors each of its central characters, without robbing them of their flaws and rough spots. It celebrates the unimaginable courage of Eddie and, by extension, all the boys and girls who made history as they dragged an entire nation into becoming better than it was. And it also acknowledges the decency and grit of the Nancy Martins who witnessed that history, first-hand. And played their own small role in it. And grew up to write it down for the rest of us.

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Jack Chrysler said...