* Just in – How It Went Down is a Coretta Scott King Author Honor book. Congrats to Ms. Magoon!
16 year old Tariq Johnson is shot by a white man, Jack Franklin. Franklin is picked up by the police, but within hours is released without charge. Through the voices of multiple characters, Magoon (The Rock and the River, Aladdin, 2009.) explores the shooting itself, the aftermath and the effect it has on T’s family, friends, and community.
There are few solid facts about the shooting – was Tariq running away from a store or just running towards home? was the man who stopped him on the street white or a light-skinned African American? did T have a gun or just a Snickers bar? Even those who witnessed the shooting have different answers depending on who they are.
We never hear from Tariq himself (or Jack Franklin), but we see different perspectives about him: from his family, his best friends since boyhood, and the local gang members who thought he was joining up. There is no definitive version; as his sister concludes: “Tariq was just Tariq.”
The ripples spread much wider than the neighborhood, once a morally compromised senatorial candidate decides to use the shooting as a platform. And we witness how over the course of nine days, T’s shooting becomes a media cause célèbre, and then is forgotten to the wider world, but has had a lasting impact on the neighborhood.
Two characters lives’ are seismically shifted by T’s death, and these two, Jennica and Tyrell, are the emotional heart of the novel. Jennica, the girlfriend of a high ranking gang member, tries to administer CPR to Tariq and in the aftermath of the shooting she begins to question her life as an attachment to the gang. Tyrell was Tariq’s long time best friend and has ambitions way beyond the neighborhood, but doesn’t know if he can resist the pressure of joining the gang without T’s protection.
Though the multitude of voices is hard to separate out at first, Magoon wisely starts with stock characters (the grieving mother, the wise old woman, the gang leader etc.) to distinguish them but then is able to create individuals with distinct and nuanced thoughts.
Many issues are raised: gang membership, white privilege, and political exploitation of death, and Magoon allows readers to make their own conclusions, albeit with a pretty clear agenda of her own. Some of the resolutions reached are a little glib, but I think work for a book intended for mid-teens. Published after the recent, highly publicized, death of Michael Brown and in the wake of the controversial acquittal of George Zimmerman, this is a timely glimpse at what it means to live and die in an impoverished inner city neighborhood.