The authority with which Ward depicts this world is palpable from the first page and stems from her having also grown up poor in a town much like the one described in the book.
She was the first in her family to go to college, coming to Stanford for a bachelor's degree in English literature and continuing on for a master's degree in communication. In interviews, she says her drive to write this book stemmed from losing her younger brother, who died at age 18, a victim of the environment she describes in the novel. She says that writing this story was a way to imagine the life he might have led.
Ward recently returned to the Palo Alto area after being honored with one of the prestigious Stegner fellowships offered at Stanford each year to a handful of promising literary writers.
At its core, the story that takes place in "Where the Line Bleeds" is a familiar one of disaffected and frustrated young black men: trapped in an inhospitable environment with its oppressively humid climate and accompanying culture of lethargy, despair and immobility that threatens to suffocate and destroy them.
The most common escapes, particularly for the young men of this community, are alcohol, marijuana, video games, bad television and house parties. The education the two brothers received at the local high school has done little to encourage them to look for a future beyond the confines the community in which they live, and the idea of continuing to college or pursuing a career beyond the sort of menial jobs available in the area — cashiers at fast-food places or gas stations — never so much as crosses their minds.
More or less abandoned by both of their parents while young, the boys were raised by their ailing grandmother, a forceful and steady presence in their lives yet unable to work or provide for them after losing her sight as an effect of diabetes. Now, with graduation approaching, both boys are out of money and desperate to find work so they can continue to buy groceries and pay the bills to keep their grandmother's home afloat.
The first brother, Joshua, is hired on at a shipping yard — a coveted job by young men in the area for its relatively high pay. Still, it is tedious, back-breaking and dangerous work, and although Joshua gains a quiet pride in being able to provide for himself and his grandmother, he is also riddled with guilt that he has earned this good fortune while his brother remains unemployed.
Tensions between the twins are further exacerbated when the second brother, Christophe, out of cash and tired of being unable to get a job he isn't even sure he wants, joins up with one his cousins and starts selling marijuana to make money.
Meanwhile, both boys find themselves forced to confront the ambivalent feelings they have for the parents who have abandoned them. Their father, a crack junkie, still skirts the perimeter of their lives, showing up uninvited from time to time, needy and desperate for a connection with his sons, but unable to offer them anything meaningful in return.
Their relationship with their mother is similarly complicated. Estranged from her son's lives after having moved to Georgia to find work, she returns home for occasional visits eager to show off her new silk outfits, oblivious to the fact that her mother and two sons have been rationing out food and at home often go hungry.
The greatest strength of this novel is Ward's ability to capture in perfect nuance the smallest gestures and details of setting in order to bring the world she depicts to life, often through the wordless way in which the characters communicate. One the more beautifully rendered scenes takes place when a girl the twins have grown up with comes over in the evenings to braid Joshua's hair into cornrows:
"Her hands cupped the crown of his head and lifted, and he felt the warm familiar enclosure of her thighs on his shoulders. He let her hands guide his head so that his ear rested on her thigh. Her fingers teased out a braid front of his head, combed his hair out. As Laila braided his hair, Joshua felt the muscles in his neck melt from strained cords to wide, lax thread. His head rested smoothly in the cup of her leg. He kicked absently at his brother's bed."
Through this simple ritual, the two characters parlay their childhood friendship into something deeper.
An inherent risk accompanying Ward's enormous talent for language and description is that in the effort to paint each moment in precise detail and also render accurately the excruciatingly slow pace of life in this town, some of the urgency in the storytelling is lost, and the novel's pacing may feel a bit slow for some audiences.
But it is a minor concern against the far greater accomplishment of having created a set of characters so finely and lovingly crafted, they become truly unforgettable.
This story contains 927 words.
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