Riot by Walter Dean Myers 2009
IQ "But I wonder if there will be a new bondage. Will we be trapped in our skins, forever held to be different because we are not white? And what wars will free us from that distinction?[...] Before those three terrible days, I looked beyond skin and saw people. But it was our skin that made us targets, not our hearts." pg.153
Riot is set in Brooklyn during the 1863 Draft Riots. It's about Claire Johnson who is bi-racial (mom is Irish, father is African American). The draft riots were a result of Pres. Lincoln instituting a draft and rich men being excused if they paid $300. This infuriated the poor, especially the Irish. The Irish were upset because many of them were poor and they saw the war as a fight for African Americans and they had no desire to help them out (more free African Americans meant less jobs for them). On July 11 at the first draft drawing, a riot broke out. African American men, women and children were beaten by Irish men, women and even children. Claire is torn as to which side she should be on and as to why all the violence is occurring in the first place.
What makes Riot so compelling is how it's written as a screenplay. There's a cast of characters, camera angles, descriptions of scenery and side notes (exits and entrances). I think the screenplay both helped and hurt the story. It hurt the story by making it confusing at times. The camera/story pans from scene to scene and it's not always clear as to what's going. Also we don't get to know the character's innermost thoughts since we only see what the cameras and other character's see. The result was that I felt a bit detached from the whole thing. At the same time, we are allowed to see more characters and their actions which helps provide a multitude of interesting perspectives. It would have been nice to learn a bit more about the characters' situation and their stories before the riots started. As it is, the readers are almost immediately thrown into the mix.
Claire is one of the most intriguing characters. We witnessed her struggle to determine what side she should be on (black or white) and her loss of innocence in that people will hurt other people simply for being different. Claire could pass as white, but she is proud that she is Black. Another great character is Liam, who is engaged (although we suspect, along with his fiancee that he has a thing for Claire) and a member of an Irish gang, the Dead Rabbits. I also liked the cameos throughout the book (like Walt Whitman). Another fresh perspective is that of Private Joshua Lancaster. He's a Union soldier and he is ultimately forced to fire on civilians. Watching his moral struggle (these people are innocent civilians and yet they are attacking Union soldiers and other innocent people) is fascinating.
All in all, I was a bit disappointed in this novel. I would recommend it to those who are a bit more familiar with the draft riots as this is not the book to start with since it isn't very explanatory. At the same time, the book is good and provides a fresh, new perspective on the draft riots in allowing you to follow various characters who play different roles in the riots. I love Walter Dean Myers and I highly encourage you to check out his other books and keep your eyes peeled for Lockdown which is coming in Feb. 2010 (read my review)
Be sure to read another fantastic book set during the Brooklyn 1863 Draft Riots, A Wish After Midnight. Read my review here
Disclosure: This is an ARC, but I got it from my sister who attended the ALA conference in Chicago this past summer.