In this fine book, Jonathan Kozol revisits children whose lives he has been involved with for many years. All have some connection to St. Ann's church in the Bronx and the services offered there. Kozol has written extensively about these children over the years, and been very involved in their lives. This book tells the next step of their stories.
In some ways, this is a wondefully hopeful book. Several of the children have finished college, others are living meaningful and service-oriented lives. Many have children of their own, and are good parents. However, in other ways, the book can lead to despair, in thinking of all these children had to endure in their lives, and when you think about the fact that their neighborhood is still full of failing schools and that America still seems to care little for its poor.
The main message here, as Kozol points out, is that the children that succeeded, although credit must be given to all of them for being extraordinary people, had help. They met someone at a crucial point in their life that gave them a leg up, a ear to listen to, help getting into the right school. Some of them had families that went above and beyond to do all they could to help them succeed. But none of them succeeded in a vacuum. We all need to take responsibility to help where we can, either within our own families or by helping the greater community. The cost of not doing this is high---prison, drug addiction, death.
I thank Jonathan Kozol for his life of caring.
This book should make any reader angry and frustrated toward the criminally-negligent "public education" system that has basically failed/is failing inner city children for decades.
One problem is that it preaches to the converted - I was already impotently angry, and now I'm a little angrier and more cynical, but it seems like the people who could effect some change never bother to read accounts like this, or try to empathize with the situation at all.
To give some comparison - Post Traumatic Stress is legitimately in the news because of so many soldiers affected after 11 years of war and many multiple year-long deployments. The children - the CHILDREN - that Kozol writes about are growing up for their entire lives in hellish, crime-ridden environments not too far removed from war zones, and somehow they are expected to go to school and pass some absurd standardized test that's supposed to prove something. What they experience is the definition of PTSD - minus the "post" part - and it's happening when they're 7,8,9 years old, right through their teenage years.
It's a grotesque obscenity. Really, we shouldn't take ourselves seriously as a country when we sit on our hands and let this happen.
Kozol helps out a lot of the kids he met and wrote about - he quotes emails where they thank him for laptops that he helped provide them. He's doing the right thing - as he points out in an endnote, these children gave him a lot of their time, and they deserve compensation. But, this does feed into America's "winning the lottery" culture. Because these specific children were lucky enough to meet and engage Kozol, they're the ones with laptops, and inroads to better schools and opportunities. The children Kozol did not meet, or didn't connect with, are left to their enviornment. That's not Kozol's fault, but that's how it is.
This kind of individual charity/support is important, but the book reminds me that it will never solve the larger problem. We're all happy that a rich benefactor can drop from the sky with gifts and money, but we all complain whenever someone suggests paying an extra nickel in taxes that - properly spent - could effect some positive change in the entire system. Lottery winnings are spent and then they're gone; systemic change requires a long-term institutional committment that we are apparently unwilling to invest in.
The book is broken into chapters that read more like short stories than a connected narrative. He opens with the stories with unhappy endings, and closes with children that turned out pretty well. Despite the subject matter, it was dry at times, and his very businesslike writing style does a good job at keeping unnecessary melodrama to a minimum, though sometimes at the expense of clear passion. However - that means a reader will never pity the children, but can try to empathize, and that's vital to the book's success.
I had not read Kozol's previous books, where he first introduced many of this book's "characters" (I incorrectly thought he wrote There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in The Other America, which I read years ago), but he provided enough background that I don't feel that was necessary. This book led me to do more research on the ghastly Martinique Hotel, which Kozol explored in Rachel and Her Children: Homeless Families in America; it might have been totally renovated since the 1990s but there's not enough money in the world that would get me to spend a night there.
So this was powerful and depressing...uplifting, but often only on an individual level. It provides little hope for the rotten system these kids have to live in - though there are small victories, and some smaller schools within these communities that are effectively helping some children. Still, for every soldier - and I'm a war veteran - suffering PTSD, there's probably dozens or hundreds of American children who go to school in awful situations and we barely pay any mind at all. It's a crime.
Before reading this book I had never heard of Jonathan Kozol and therefore am not really all that familiar with his work and the people with whom he has worked. Still, "Fire in the Ashes" managed to be an interesting read that rather had me itching to get back into the world of education.
Each chapter focuses on a particular child, and Kozol gives an account of that child's development or lack thereof over the years. The first few chapters are not the happiest, but serves as a decent comparision for the second portion of the book in which the success stories are presented.
The accounts are quite thorough and provided enlightening summaries of these kids' lives to the present--though Kozol's attention to detail and conversation somehow left everything, in my view, surprisingly impersonal. I do believe it would be unprofessional to create a work dedicated to tugging at heartstrings and tear ducts, but I still feel this is the type of book that should get me caring about the individuals. I did find myself much more educated and concerned about the situations of inner-city kids and their schools, but I failed to connect with anyone presented. A big part of me commends Kozol's just-the-facts approach with its scattered events and conversations, but it did leave me feeling rather neutral on the individuals.
This, however, does not take away from the enlightening importance of this book as it works to open eyes to unforunate situations. One may or may not agree with Kozol's politics and social views (which I feel he keeps respectfully in the background) but the book does lay out the undeniable situation at hand.
Personal taste is what fuels my recommendations here. Kozol presents the book and its people without any fanfare and some readers might want more of a conclusion and a point. But for those who just want the honest situation, this will be much appreciated.
The fiery passion that infused Jonathon Kozol's previous books, especially Rachel and Her Children: Homeless Families in America, is missing from this work. Instead of the outraged, indignant and galvanized writer of conscience of his previous books, we read the murmurings of a world-weary and halting man who has probably felt and seen so much that he is numb to its effects on his prose.
Ironically, Kozol's tone mirrors his subjects lives in that the longterm effects of poverty, chaos and violence - even as a bystander - wears you down and sucks out your life juices. In both subjects and author, inspiration is replaced by resignation, hope and change by fear and longing, redemption and renewal by bitterness and fatalism.
To witness Kozol's decline through this book is the most fascinating part of this story and the reason I gave it four stars. I felt a good 50% of the material was recycled (which in of itself was a telling feature of this book's mood) from his previous books, which is why it didn't deserve a 5 star rating.
Overall, I recommend this book as a lens on the corrosive power of poverty on everyone it touches - even writers who don't live its everyday trauma.
In this book you see the tremendous amount of caring, cost and nurturing it takes to help a child who has lived in and around trauma acquire the skills to leave poverty behind. The children profiled in this book have seen family members and neighbors die through violence, drugs and suicide. They have been hungry and bullied by others suffering the same social conditions. They have loyalty to family, guilt for having opportunities. Some waver between confidence and doubt. I would imagine their lives are more lonely than they let on.
Each of these is a story of hope, but each of these is an exception. How many scholarships to boarding schools are there? How many homes are there like Marta's that have the patience to endure betrayals of a child in need like Benjamin?
There was a time when a Kozol book was a best seller upon publication. There was once more interest in the education of poor children; there was concern about the plight of the poor in general. Today, not so much. Those who once had the shelter of "Welfare Hotels" are now homeless and very little political or press time is devoted to their plight.
Jonathan Kozol and Robert Coles have spent their lives helping children in need. Their direct help to children has been supplemented by their books which have inspired others to take on this challenge. Kozol and Coles won't be with us forever. I hope some young people, perhaps some such as those covered in this book, will rise to carry the torch of this mission and bring more attention the needs of poor children.
on January 6, 2015
I bought this book because I am a longtime reader (and lover) of Mr. Kozols work. While I found the book interesting (and was happy to get some updated information) I don't think I'd necessarily call it required reading for anyone interested in education (as I have said about Amazing Grace). It felt more like a summary of his older work than a new book, even though it was all new material. Still, assuming one hasn't read all of his other books, I would recommend it. 3 1/2 stars.
on October 3, 2014
I've been reading Jonathan Kozol for two decades, and the sensitivity he has for the populations he writes about is inspiring and admirable. His writing comes alive and leaves me feeling as though I personally know each person in his books. The fact that he realizes how children are our future and it is so important to treat them as they are a precious resource coincides with my way of thinking and the sadness of the realization that our current society has more concern for other things. I appreciated learning about how life has been for the children he has encountered and especially Leonardo. His books are all highly recommended by me.
Jonathan Kozol is legendary among educators, social workers and pretty much anyone who cares about improving the lives of poor, inner city children. From the crashing success of "Savage Inequalities", Kozol has been a force to be reckoned with. To be sure, Kozol is not the first comfortable white guy to spend some time in the inner city and write a book about the experience. But unlike many, Kozol's agenda was never about the books; the books came secondary to his lifelong dedication to inner city children and the need to get the word out about the vast gap between the haves and the have-nots, about the harms that successive "reforms" have wrought on the children consigned to our nation's slums and ghettos.
As such, this book in many ways represents the culmination of Kozol's work, a looking back at 50 years spent working with and for inner city children. About 25 years ago, in the late 1980s, Kozol encountered especially brutal conditions in the rundown hotels to which New York City's homeless population were shunted. Despite being blocks from some of the toniest areas of town, these hotels were so effectively shuttered and locked away from public awareness hat Kozol and his allies literally had to sneak in to do a video exposé before public pressure finally forced the city to close down the hotels (and shunt the residents into slums which were only marginally better).
Kozol followed several of the children who grew up in these dangerous unheated, unsanitary and exploitative conditions, particularly those who came of age as teenagers and young adults under these conditions. For many of these youths, their first tastes of adolescent independence came from panhandling in the streets or perhaps running drugs for some of the many dealers who operated freely in the building. (What does it say when "security" allows drug dealers open access, but bars journalists?)
Kozol wrote two earlier books on these children - "Rachel and Her Children" and "Amazing Grace". This current book follows those children into adulthood. Some have thrived, some have barely survive and some have fallen by the wayside, casualties of our "wars" on poverty and drugs. Kozol's style is at once both deeply connected and musingly detached. Clearly Kozol is deeply invested in these "kids" - he has known them most of their lives, spent a great deal of time with them even (especially) under dangerous circumstances, supported them, and developed deep personal friendships with many that have expanded beyond his role as journalist and mentor. On the other hand, Kozol writes as one who has had to learn the hard way a few too many times how to let go. Despite giving his life to the cause of these children, he cannot - and has not - saved every one.
The book is split into two parts: "The Shadow of the Past" and "A Bright Shining Light". Part One focuses mostly on those who didn't make it. Boys like Eric, Christopher and Silvio who cut their adolescent teeth on activities like drug dealing/using and gang activity. Boys who got caught up early in the enthralling toxicity of life in the Martinique Hotel and the streets, and who couldn't and didn't leave that life behind when they were moved out to the Bronx. Kozol views their stories with a candid eye. He is open about the choices these young men made that led to the outcomes they faced. He does not dwell on their victimhood, but neither does he deny it. Each of these young men were a tragic mix of social and educational failure, decent but flawed family life and emotional and hormonal inability to disconnect from their toxic environments for their own survival.
The final story in this section is a bit different, as it's more about a mother than her children. Alice served as one of Kozol's friends and mentors into the ways of inner city life. Her sharp with and biting insight helped her survive - and even helped her to help others to thrive, but it wasn't enough to save her from her own battle with HIV and cancer.
Alice's story serves as a bridge to the success stories - those who not only survived the Martinique and the Bronx ghettos, but have since gone on to fulfilling lives of their own. We meet Leonardo, Pineapple, Jeremy, Angelo, and Kozol's godson Benjamin. If you don't come away loving at least some of those young people, your heart just might be made of stone. Through a combination of luck, devoted family perseverance and sheer personal grit, these young people seized educational and other opportunities, and most are now giving back to their communities. Kozol write of them with an understated but glowing pride, much like a grandfather who doesn't want to bore you with stories of his grandchildren, but, aw heck, let me tell you about that Pineapple.
The book is very easy reading. Kozol writes in an almost rambling style, relating incidents and details that don't necessarily go anywhere, but which add up to a complete and deep portrait of each child, his/her family and environmental situation, and his relationship with them. He doesn't do a lot of editorializing or moralizing, but nonetheless, he gets his views across regarding the tragedy of poverty in the richest nation on earth.
If you've been following Kozol all along, of course you'll want to read this culmination of his life's work. but even if you know little or nothing about Kozol, you should read this book. It provides a broad yet deep summary of not only his work, but the progress that's been made tackling the issues of poverty and the long road left to travel - all with the perspective of 50 years' experience in the trenches.
Heartwarming. Uplifting. Inspiring. Those are usually not words associated with a work by Jonathan Kozol. More times than not, words like heartbreaking, infuriating, and maddening apply to his works. However, with "Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-five Years Among the Poorest Children in America", the fiercely outspoken equal education proponent manages to find the glimmers of hope that exist in the most unlikely places as he retraces realtionships he has carried on for many years with children whose lives have profoundly affected his.
Jonathan Kozol has made a name for himself chronicling the deficits that exist in public education for those who are minorities or poor or both. Much of his work has focused on New York, on that section of the Bronx where homeless families were sequestered away from anything like a life of quality. Kozol begins by examining the lives of three different families, all of whom he originally met in the Martinique Hotel, a "temporary" homeless shelter run in the 1980s that was rife with abuses of all sorts, especially drugs. These stories are not happy ones, as the children fall into what many would stereotypically expect from them - drug abuse, criminality, jail, depression, and suicide. These are the children whose lives could not be turned around, no matter what help was given them or how many arden suppoters tried to lure them away from the wrong things. Their hope, their souls were killed when they were very young and they could not escape from that death.
Yet Kozol offers the "bright, shining lights" as he terms them, the children who made successes of themselves, largely due in part to outside help. These are children, like Pineapple and Angelo, that readers recall the most from his other works. Ever since Kozol began writing these chronicles of inequities, people have been offering assistance, sending money to his charitable foundation through which scholarships are provided. These are the success stories, whether that means that a student was the first in their family to graduate high school or college, to find a job that meets their calling, or just rising above the destitution of their early lives and break the cycle that surrounds many of their families. He examines their struggles and successes, documenting the pain and joy he experienced alongside each roadblock and gain that they endured. More often than not, these children know how important it is for them to give back to their community, to pick battles that they have a chance to win and hopefully make a difference in the life of someone, the way that Kozol made a difference in theirs.
"Fire in the Ashes" is a compelling, culminating read for those who are familiar with Kozol's other works. It is a joy to read that some children have been able to rise above their circumstances and succeed when everything in life was stacked against them. Yet Kozol tempers this by pointing out that this only happened through extraordinary circumstances - someone stepped in to help them. Too often, nobody steps in and these children fall through the cracks into criminality and drugs and death, a seemingly endless cycle. Kozol comments on the continuing inequalities that exist been the rich and the poor, and how the "gentrification" of areas like this part of the Bronx, do very little to add to the lives of the poor who live there. As hopeful as this new book is, it is still a rallying cry against the barriers that we allow to stand.
on September 2, 2012
Jonathan Kozol breaks my heart every time I open one of his books. Who knew the suffering children are experiencing in homes in the poorest areas of our country? Who knew how schools, the last hope of many, are giving up on these children? Who knew?
Kozol revisits children he has run across in his work in the schools in the past forty years. For many of these children, life has only gotten more difficult and many of these stories end tragically, with prison time and even in death.
But there are happy stories, too. As I was reading along, with one devastating story after the other, I was at the point, mid-book, where it was too painful to go on. It was almost as if Kozol realized that, too, and the stories suddenly began to shift and Kozol began to tell the stories of lives redeemed and saved along with the bleak.
A book that is a reminder to all of us of the power we hold in our hands to help or hinder those too weak or too tired to make it on their own.