Jonathan Kozol has spent 45 years reporting on the children left behind.
Kozol hesitates to draw connections between Eric and Christopher, or Lisette and Miranda. Instead of analysis, we get many pages of stilted dialogue between Kozol and Vicky, and then this elliptical semi-conclusion about why these two other brothers fell apart while their younger sisters rallied: “I did not look for ‘patterns’ but could not escape the sense that there were parallels.” For sure, but what do the parallels mean—what can we learn from them? Kozol does not say. He acknowledges the “poor judgment” of Eric and Christopher, terribly disadvantaged boys who turned into terrible men, but he does not want his readers “to see these outcomes as the consequence of circumstances far beyond society’s control.” I don’t either. But when Kozol simplistically asks why any city would house a mother and children in a neighborhood like Mott Haven, without any discussion of cost or context, I found myself getting cranky. It’s so much easier to ask the question than to grapple with the answers.
In the second half of the book, Kozol tells happier stories about children who in young adulthood have pulled themselves into stability, because they had especially devoted parents or with a major assist from a local priest and a private school education, paid for by a small foundation Kozol created for this purpose. “These children had unusual advantages,” Kozol points out. “Someone intervened in every case.” True, but again, not much of an explanation. Unlike Tough, for example, whose new book How Children Succeed also tracks the resilience of a few outstanding poor children, Kozol does not dive into social science or brain research, or even much into the debates, old and new, about the end of welfare, the culture of poverty, or education reform. He has been criticized before for “pious moralizing that is short on solutions,” in the words of the Times. Racial segregation is an obvious and long-standing villain in his work, but here as elsewhere he doesn’t make the empirical case for why integration is his favored solution. Maybe this is too much to ask: It’s just not Kozol’s thing. But I found myself longing for more of his thinking on the structural forces that drive poverty, given his depth of knowledge and experience.
As the book nears its conclusion, Kozol mentions to the child of Mott Haven to whom he is closest, a girl named Pineapple, that he is having trouble finishing his story. “I said I wasn’t sure how much had changed back in the neighborhood where she and I had met, but I told her I kept going back and forth on this because I didn’t want to end up on a dreary note.” She tells him to think positive; she says she and her sister are determined to go back to the neighborhood with their college degrees and “you know? Make little changes that we can? … Picking battles that we have a chance to win?”
It’s tempting to read Kozol’s doubts as a reflection not just on his book’s “dreary note” but as a self-judgment of his own life’s work. And Pineapple’s response—repeating back to Kozol his own aphorisms, uttered to her years before—is in fact an antidote to his own gloom. OK, Kozol hasn’t ended school segregation or convinced middle-class people to live side by side with poor ones. But that’s more than any writer, even one who has served for decades as our conscience, can ask of himself. Over his career Kozol has wrought many small changes and won many individual battles. When I'm 76 I hope I can say the same.
Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America by Jonathan Kozol. Crown.
Emily Bazelon is a Slate senior editor and writes about law, family, and kids. Her forthcoming book, Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Empathy and Character. Find her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook or Twitter.