Monday, March 06, 2017

Both Sides Now: Armstrong and Charlie by Steven B. Frank

"Whose idea was it to send me to a new school? You think the white kids want us to come?"

One thing about Mama, she will never tell me a lie. "Some maybe do. Some probably don't."

"Cause we're different?"

"Yeah. But you're also the same. All starting sixth grade, going through the same changes. You know, Armstrong, it's not just an opportunity to to change schools. It's to change ways, too. It doesn't always have to be Armstrong against the world." Mama said.

That's gonna depend, I think, if it's the world against Armstrong.

They call it "experimental busing," in the 1970s. That means that Armstrong and a few others are switching schools from South Central L.A. to Wonderland Elementary in the Hollywood Hills. Armstrong, the family youngest, with five sisters, doesn't take anything from anybody, and he plans to stay that way.

The Laurel Canyon kid, Charlie, is also the youngest in a family still mourning the death of his one-year-older brother Andy. And if that isn't enough change, he learns that many of his friends are suddenly part of white flight to other schools.

"So, they're racist?" Charlie asks his dad. "I wouldn't go that far, Charlie," Dad says. "They're doing what they think is right for their children."

"And you and Mom?"

"We're doing what we think is right for ours."

That's more than enough change for the risk-averse Charlie.

And as the first days of sixth-grade Armstrong the Rebel and Charlie the Rules Boy find themselves assigned to sit next to each other in the class of the dreaded nasty man with the beard, Mr. Mitchell, already on edge and edging toward conflict. It begins with Charlie lecturing Armstrong about taking a cut in line and ends with Armstrong throwing a handball right at Charlie's head. Armstrong denies any intent to injure, and Charlie follows playground rules not to tattle on him. The first fight is unsatisfying. Charlie has a big bruise, but Armstrong has admit to himself that the moral high ground goes to Charlie.

An arm-wrestling bout goes to Armstrong, when about to lose, he makes Charlie laugh at the crucial moment, and Charlie chokes as a fist fight threatens over a foul in basketball, but when Charlie's Ho-Hos start disappearing from his lunch sack, he suspects Armstrong and sets out to get real revenge. Using a syringe and needle Charlie injects hot sauce into a Ho Ho planted in his lunch as a lure to get even with Armstrong. But unexpectedly. Armstrong swipes the Ho Ho but decides at the last minute to swap it for Alex Levinson's Space Food Sticks. Alex squeals, literally, and the whole story comes out. Both boys are suspended by the principal.

It's a draw.

Armstrong and Charlie both find themselves doing some hard labor, Armstrong for an elderly neighbor, Mr. Khalil, and Charlie sentenced to work on Saturdays at his dad's warehouse, and as time goes by, the two sixth-graders come to an uneasy truce. And it is finally at their classes' week-long nature camp that the truce turns into an insightful friendship, in Steven A. Frank's forthcoming Armstrong and Charlie, as they find they are indeed the same as well as different.

Frank's storytelling is honest, funny, and even-handed, as the two share the grief of death and the stresses of early adolescence with increasing knowledge of themselves and the way the world works. The two boys provide the narration, told alternately in their own first-person accounts of their year, their first jobs and first kisses, their families, and their developing friendship. It's a great story, one that ends without a final ending, with a handshake that takes them forward, as sixth grade ends as the bus that brought them together has to leave, a frank look at a significant moment in time and in two lives.

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