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Who's on top of the social food chain? How do you get ahead? Who makes the rules? Who needs to follow them?
Paul DuPree is working at a soup kitchen in Harlem the summer his father dies, just trying to get by. But Elijah, the soup man, won't stop talking about the social contract and asking Paul questions about heavy-duty things. Paul has never thought about this stuff. He'd rather hang out with Keisha, an unwed teen mom whose basketball skills rival his own.
Then Sly, a notorious Harlem big shot, shows up. Paul is both intrigued and intimidated by Sly and his conspiracy theories, and for once he starts contemplating how you really get ahead in life. As the talk of what-ifs turns into reality, Paul realizes his summer is about more than getting by—it's about taking charge of your life.
To complicate matters, Sly, a notorious Harlem hoodlum-type character, has his own theories about the social contract, and they basically add up to this: the rich people on top conspire to keep the poor people on the bottom.
Paul, and his new friend Keisha, are caught somewhere in the middle of these two lines of thinking, and Paul has to grapple with this topic, and with the reality of his life in Harlem, before he can reach a conclusion that will give him a foundation on which to build his life.
I have mixed feelings about this book. One the one hand, Mr. Myers brilliantly unfolds the concept of the social contract. We start with theoretical examples and history, and the reader is able to distance himself from the concept. But as the book progresses, the examples hit closer to home until both Paul and the reader are forced to contend with some of the most difficult aspects of what it means to voluntarily give up some of our personal rights in order to benefit from and contribute to our society as a whole. Paul's journey, while difficult to really connect with at the beginning of the book, becomes easier to identify with as it becomes more personal. The final conclusion he reaches is one that will challenge readers to take a hard look at their lives, at personal responsibility, and at what it takes to pursue one's dreams even when it looks like those dreams are very far away.
On the other hand, this is a book with very little in the way of plot and true conflict. The conflict is internal, and the same themes of social contract are discussed at every opportunity. This is fine in conversations between Paul and his new boss because that's where the idea is first presented to us. But when Paul has a run-in with Sly, the hardcore Sly, without knowing about Paul's discussions with his boss Elijah, brings up the term "social contract" and proceeds to give Paul a firsthand example of his own view on the subject. I found that situation to stretch the bounds of believability. Most people never bring up the words "social contract" in casual conversation, and for two such different characters to both target Paul with this topic felt convenient for the author, but unbelievable in reality. Sly does provide a valuable counterpoint to Elijah's perspective, I just wish the author had found a more credible way to bring him into the equation.
I also struggled a bit with the fact that nothing much happened beyond countless conversations about the social contract. Until the last third of the book when the concept became truly personal for Paul, it was hard to maintain interest.
All of that said, I think if I'd gone into this book with the attitude that this is a story meant to provoke thoughtful discussion rather than to entertain, I would've been well served. This is a valuable book, and is definitely one I think should be taught in classrooms everywhere. Mr. Myers makes a difficult concept accessible to his readers, and he allows both sides of an argument (one for personal responsibility and one for conspiracy) to lie on the table without judgement so that the reader can work through the issue himself. This might not be the book that will keep you turning pages through the night, but it will be the book whose ideas will take root inside of you and continue to provoke thought long after you close the cover.