So I’m not black, I did not grow up in inner city poverty, my father was not incarcerated for murder and I did not attend Yale. That is Rob Peace’s world in East Orange, NJ. I cannot know that world except through the story of his life told by his Yale roommate of 4 years, author Jeff Hobbs.
I loved this book. I was drawn into Rob/Shawn’s story and wanted so much for him to realize the mythological “American Dream” that says it’s about sacrifice, hard work and a good education. But the title told me it would not be a happy ending. I’m glad the author tells us that up front. It allows us to suspend our judgments of his choices and just wait for events to unfold. By the end of the book, I cared so much about this smart, dedicated, hardworking young man who wanted so much to do right by his family and his friends. He got dealt a set of cards the day he was born. Some things he could control and some things he couldn’t – that is the story of every human life.
He made bad decisions and bad choices. We all have a personal responsibility to live with the choices we make. But it needs to be put into the context of the worlds he lived in. And there were two worlds he was straddling: the dangerous poor neighborhoods of East Orange where he grew up, where his mother lived and where he returned after Yale. Then there was his four years at Yale where he excelled academically and received a degree in molecular biophysics and bio chemistry, the tuition funded entirely by a benefactor. He also sold marijuana to fund his additional expenses at Yale and to stockpile money he would use to help support his mother Jackie and launch his future in Rio. I’m not going to delve into the sad history of marijuana in this country and how it has ruined lives for no discernible reason that makes any sense. It’s just one of the factors that played out in this tragedy.
What does intrigue me is the people who gave this book *one* star on Goodreads: African-American readers who are critics of both the writer and the story he told. Their judgment of the writer and his motivations in even writing about Rob Peace is startling to me. It is a reminder of something I have always believed: “Life is about perspective. What we see depends on where we are standing.” I can’t understand their perspective, but I respect the fact that I will never be able to stand in their shoes to see what they are seeing in this book.
The proceeds from the sale of the book go to St. Benedict’s in East Orange, NJ, where Rob attended high school and where he returned after Yale to teach for 4 years and to coach the Water Polo Team – a sport at which he excelled in both high school and at Yale. That was his mother Jackie’s wishes. I didn’t know that about the proceeds until I read the reader comments after finishing the book. It only supports what I already felt about Jeff Hobb’s motivation in writing the book: he wants Rob to be remembered as the amazing person he was – not simply and completely as the victim of a violent crime. His life mattered. More people need to understand a world we cannot experience ourselves because we weren’t born into his circumstances and we were not faced with his choices.
I would love to see this book on high school reading lists. Young people need to cultivate empathy for people and circumstances they know nothing about, but which inform the lives of thousands of people – some of whom they *will* encounter in their lives. Empathy. We all need more of that.