Review: The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs

Monday, January 5, 2015

Title: The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace
Subtitle: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League
Pages: 402
Genre: Non-fiction, biography
Publisher: Scribner (Simon & Schuster)
Pub. Date: September 23, 2014

Synopsis from Barnes & Noble:

A heartfelt, and riveting biography of the short life of a talented young African-American man who escapes the slums of Newark for Yale University only to succumb to the dangers of the streets—and of one’s own nature—when he returns home.

When author Jeff Hobbs arrived at Yale University, he became fast friends with the man who would be his college roommate for four years, Robert Peace. Robert’s life was rough from the beginning in the crime-ridden streets of Newark in the 1980s, with his father in jail and his mother earning less than $15,000 a year. But Robert was a brilliant student, and it was supposed to get easier when he was accepted to Yale, where he studied molecular biochemistry and biophysics. But it didn’t get easier. Robert carried with him the difficult dual nature of his existence, “fronting” in Yale, and at home.

Through an honest rendering of Robert’s relationships—with his struggling mother, with his incarcerated father, with his teachers and friends and fellow drug dealers—The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace encompasses the most enduring conflicts in America: race, class, drugs, community, imprisonment, education, family, friendship, and love. It’s about the collision of two fiercely insular worlds—the ivy-covered campus of Yale University and Newark, New Jersey, and the difficulty of going from one to the other and then back again. It’s about poverty, the challenges of single motherhood, and the struggle to find male role models in a community where a man is more likely to go to prison than to college. It’s about reaching one’s greatest potential and taking responsibility for your family no matter the cost. It’s about trying to live a decent life in America. But most all the story is about the tragic life of one singular brilliant young man. His end, a violent one, is heartbreaking and powerful and unforgettable.

One of the things I liked best about this book was how it was a eulogy of sorts to the author's friend (and former college roommate). Before reading this, I had wondered if there was any possibility that maybe the writing of this book was exploitative at all. But what I found instead was that the author seems to have genuinely cared for and regarded this man and wanted to tell his story.

Growing up in a neighborhood of low socioeconomic status where "hustling" was often a way of life, Robert Peace, seemed to overcome this and eventually made it to Yale, where he earned a degree in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry. But going back home after college brought Peace back into the dangerous lifestyle that many at home lived. 

What I found interesting, for one, was how post college life turned out differently than expected for a lot of people. This surprised me I guess, because you would assume that someone who goes to an Ivy League school will have it All. Figured.Out afterwards. And I was surprised and frustrated, as I'm sure most readers would be, at how Peace's life choices did not reflect nearly what he was capable of. This book, in addition to being a thoughtful biography, was also an interesting look at the societal dynamics of growing up in the "hood" and the impact this continues to have on the kids who grow up there, even when they are provided with great resources. The thought is that the concept of "choices" may still be different, to a certain degree, based on the environment that shapes you during your childhood. Peace's decision making was influenced greatly by his father, who was in jail for double murder (and for whom Peace worked steadily by researching law books to try to fight for him legally), and in his desire to provide for his mother who worked tirelessly to provide the best for him. But despite how smart he was, he often made decisions that were not in his best interest. 

This book is sad because of the tragedy and how Peace's life ends (and knowing throughout the reading that this is coming up), but I was comforted by knowing that Peace really did a lot during the short life he led (both for himself and for others). He definitely led a full life. 

I thought everything was well researched and well written. The author could have easily just focused on writing what he knew and added in a couple interviews. But he was very thorough, providing history about the town, the schools, Peace's mom and the way she parented her son, etc.

Highly recommended!


nomadreader said...

I am listening to this now and am somewhat obsessed. I can't quite articulate why it is such a compelling read when I know the end, but I am loving it. Must finish soon!

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