BLURB: As the Civil War rages, another battle breaks out behind the lines. During a long hot July in 1863, the worst race riots the United States has ever seen erupt in New York City. Earlier that year, desperate for more Union soldiers, President Abraham Lincoln instituted a draft–a draft that would allow the wealthy to escape serving in the army by paying a $300 waiver, more than a year’s income for the recent immigrant Irish. And on July 11, as the first drawing takes place in Lower Manhattan, the city of New York explodes in rage and fire. Stores are looted; buildings, including the Colored Foundling Home, are burned down; and black Americans are attacked, beaten, and murdered. The police cannot hold out against the rioters, and finally, battle-hardened soldiers are ordered back from the fields of Gettysburg to put down the insurrection, which they do–brutally. Fifteen-year-old Claire, the beloved daughter of a black father and Irish mother, finds herself torn between the two warring sides. Faced with the breakdown of the city–the home–she has loved, Claire must discover the strength and resilience to address the new world in which she finds herself, and to begin the hard journey of remaking herself and her identity.
REVIEW: “Learn something new every day” is a favorite expression of my dad’s and, I have to say that by reading RIOT, I certainly did learn something new. While I was aware of the terrible poverty, especially of the Irish immigrants and the newly-freed African Americans; the huge class divisions between the haves and have-nots; and the deep-seated bigotry and racism that ran rampant around the time of the Civil War (and, unfortunately, for years after), I didn’t know about the race riots that erupted over the draft (I have since remedied this hole in my education).
The story itself is written in screenplay format with a multitude of characters who come from all backgrounds, providing readers with a variety of perspectives. The main character, Claire, is stuck right in the middle—not too rich, not too poor; a black father and a white mother; and both black friends and Irish friends. Having never faced true adversity, she’s never really had to define her beliefs or face her background and roots. Until the riots. The focus on dialogue creates an immediacy that puts the reader right in the middle of the action and allows a glimpse into the minds of variety of characters. The format of the story, without the detailed descriptions found in a traditional novel, makes the actions of the people involved all the more powerful and urgent.
I’m always for on the lookout for amazing historical novels that will keep my students’ attention while immersing them in past. RIOT by Walter Dean Myers does just that. In fact, as soon as I finished reading it, I ran it right over to my social studies teacher so I could share it with her. It’s exactly the type of historical novel students can truly benefit from—and enjoy.
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