Review Detail

Kneel Featured
Young Adult Fiction 477
Timely and important novel
Overall rating 
 
5.0
Plot 
 
5.0
Characters 
 
5.0
Writing Style 
 
5.0
Russell and his friend Marion live in Louisiana, and hope to use their skills at football to work their way out of that environment. Things are particularly tense in the area after another Black teen, Dante Maynard, was shot and killed by a policeman, Officer Reynaud, who has not yet been charged. Russell drives an older car, and when it breaks down a few blocks from his area of town, he and Russell are very nervous. When a player from the mostly white Westmond football team stops, they know it is not to help them, and are just glad that Mr. Dupree, who runs a fruit and vegetable wholesale company, stops and gets them to safety. Russell has a crush on Gabby Dupree, who is more interested in school than in Russell. There has been a lot of activity in the community surrounding Maynard's death, and many flyers calling out the police and asking for justice have been posted by someone being called "Dante's Shadow". When Russell's team plays Westmond, tensions are already high, and when Lawrence, a Westmond player, uses the n-word on the field and is not taken out of the game, as dictated by the rules, Marion is pushed by Brad, another Westmond player, and the ensuing scuffle is blamed on Marion rather than the white players. He is arrested and taken to jail, and Russell's father has to bail him out, since Marion's mother is not returning calls and his step father is abusive. Marion comes to stay with Russell and his family while they work on finding someone to take his case. Coach Fontenot removes Marion from games, because the league has required him to do so, and this means that Marion could lose his chance to get a college scholarship. When Russell is moved to protest by kneeling during the national anthem before a game, his own career is in jeopardy, and his father, who lives and breathes Russell's football career, cautions him to back off. Things improve slightly when Russell is paired with Gabby on a project for English class that involves James Baldwin's If Beale Street Could Talk, and the two get to spend more time together. Gabby is very interested in issues of social justice, and so takes an interest in Marion's case. Unfortunately, she also takes Russell to a protest about Maynard which takes a bad turn. Will Russell be able to find a way to use his voice to call for social justice and still be able to pursue his dreams of a football career?
Good Points
This is a very timely book, and brilliantly incorporates social issues with football in a nicely nuanced story. While Marion's unfair arrest, Dante Maynard's death, and the resultant community outrage take center stage, there are undercurrents of the players' college aspirations, family interactions, and budding romance to bring the political problems close to home. One of my favorite parts was when Russell's father explains how his own football career, in the 1980s, played out, giving details of racial discrimination that help explain his actions toward his son's activism. The assignment of If Beale Street Could Talk helps give Russell perspective and assists him in finding his voice.

Russell is often torn between his own safety and speaking out. This is painfully realistic. The books starts with the scene with his car breaking down. He doesn't want to worry that he is just a few blocks into Westmond, but he does. When he is approached by the other player, he wants to talk back, but knows this is dangerous. Russell often feels like a coward for not speaking up, but realizes that saying something could turn into a life and death incident. Especially poignant is the scene at the protest when Gabby is being injured by a police officer, but one of the protest organizers pushes Russell away, knowing that he could be killed for trying to protect Gabby.

While fictional titles Feinstein's Backfield Boys (2017) and Bradley's Call Me By My Name (2014) as well as the nonfiction books Attucks!: Oscar Robertson and the Basketball Team That Awakened a City (2018) by Hoose and Strong Inside (2016) by Maraniss all combine sports with discussions of racism, all of the authors are white men. It's increasingly important to make sure that the stories of Black characters are told by Black authors, so it's good to see Buford enter the young adult field with this stirring account of racism set against the background of sports in the south.
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