Title: Leaving Atlanta
Author: Tayari Jones
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing (Hachette)
Pub. Date: August 21, 2002 (hardcover); April 2, 2009 (paperback)
Leaving Atlanta is a story that definitely left its mark on me. Even as I moved on to reading other books, I found my mind returning to the characters in this book, wondering about them as if they were real people I interacted with in my life. Maybe it's because the main characters were children, naive to the world, that I wanted to reach out and protect. Whatever the reason, I was thoroughly impressed with this novel, and probably even more so because of the depth of the story despite its simplicity.
Leaving Atlanta is told against the backdrop of the Atlanta child murders of 1979. This true event involved the kidnapping and murder of over twenty African American children in Atlanta, Georgia between 1979 and 1981. Childhood can be difficult enough, fitting in at school, trying to make friends, without having to worry that you'll be the next child snatched off the street and murdered. Yet, such was the reality for the children of fictional Oglethorpe Elementary. They were faced with trying to understand the frenzy their parents were placed in, worrying about their children coming straight home after school. Worrying about who the murderer could be. Told in three parts (each focusing on a different child), Jones worries less about a specific plot and more about bringing the reader into the mind and daily life of a child caught in this scary situation. And although the murders are the main thing on everyone's minds, the children are also learning about the world around them and dealing with issues such as race, poverty, abuse, peer groups, and bullying.
Jones's character development was superb. The writing was told from a child's perspective (first in third person, then in second, then in first) but didn't revert to childlike language. I thought it was such an astute manner of writing because other than the use of the child's language in dialogue, the only other "childish" part was the perception of the child. I was able to appreciate the writing while still feeling as though I was in the child's thoughts. I became so attached to the character of Tasha in the first part of the book that I was devastated when I realized the second part was told from the point of view of another character. But just like part one, I grew to care about the second and third characters immensely. The ending of the second part gave me chills. The significance of what life meant for that child, and the decision he makes... it's one I won't forget. I wish I knew someone else who read this just so I can discuss that one part!
Leaving Atlanta is a book about children and about the big bad world. Its quiet subtlety masks a surprising intensity that will leave you thinking about it for a long time after turning that last page.
Looking forward to reading more by this author!