Remember the play Our Town by Thornton Wilder? You may have read it in high school or seen it performed by a local theater company. In Our Town, one of the main characters, Emily, dies, and her ghost spends Act III of the play getting used to the idea that she's dead and observing the aftermath of her death on the lives of those she loved. Once she understands how her family and friends can move on without her, she can move on without them. It's a lovely play, rooted in early 20th century American values and the idea that human life is ephemeral.
Jewell Parker Rhodes's Ghost Boys (Little Brown, 2018) is a 21st century version of Our Town. In Ghost Boys, Emily is replaced by 12-year-old Jerome, a boy from the Chicago projects killed by a policeman who mistakes Jerome's toy gun for a real one. After his death, Jerome watches as the repercussions of his senseless murder are played out among his family members and his friend Carlos, as well as those he didn't know at all, the family of the cop who killed him. Also like Emily in Our Town, Jerome is guided by other ghosts, in his case, the "ghost boys" who were all killed because of the color of their skin. The leader of the ghost boys is Emmett Till, the 15-year-old murdered in Mississippi in 1955 by white men who were acquitted of the crime by an all-white jury. Emmett helps Jerome see how his death is rooted in the racism that has plagued our country since its inception, racism that robs families of their sons and brothers in a way that is also uniquely American.
There's an otherworldly quality to Jewell Parker Rhodes's writing in Ghost Boys , an unearthly atmosphere that she creates with her words. It makes for a mesmerizing reading experience. It's not a scary read; rather, it's a book that whispers. But it whispers fiercely. Jerome's grandmother tells Carlos and Jerome's sister Kim: "Can't undo wrong. Can only do our best to make things right." That means bearing witness, telling the stories of the ghost boys, and understanding that "(o)nly the living can make the world better."
Ghost Boys is an astounding book that should be required reading in middle school classrooms and homes. Rarely have I been so affected by a story that I run out and tell language arts teachers about it the day after I finish it. But that's what I did with Ghost Boys. It is the Our Town for our century: a century in which the problems of the past are still visited upon the youth of today; a century where the "American value" that leads to the deaths of our young, black boys must be made right by the living.