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For me, the experience of reading Sam Graham-Felsen’s debut novel, GREEN, was a constant shifting between the familiar and the strange. Its setting and pop-cultural references in the early 1990s were relatable --- at that time, I was similar in age to the book’s middle-school-student characters. But my middle and high school experiences could not be less like those of David Greenfeld (aka “Green”), the novel’s protagonist. Dave attends Martin Luther King, Jr., Middle School in Boston and lives in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood. I now live near Boston and know the JP neighborhood well --- but these days, the gentrification that is only hinted at in Graham-Felsen’s early-1990s setting has completely transformed the neighborhood from what it was 25 years ago.

"GREEN might be set a quarter-century ago, but it remains all too relevant for our times."

Dave is one of a small handful of white students at King. Having missed out on the lottery to attend a more integrated school, his next hurdle is to pass into Boston’s elite exam high school, Boston Latin. Dave’s parents, progressive activists who start community gardens and believe in public education, insist that Dave needs to give King a chance, even when he is constantly mocked for not fitting in or (even worse) ridiculed for his attempts to do so. Dave likes the hometown basketball team, the Celtics, even though their most famous stars --- Kevin McHale and Larry Bird --- aren’t as cool as the so-trendy Charlotte Hornets (who also sport fashion-forward purple and teal uniforms). Dave’s closest friend --- the one other white kid in his grade --- doesn’t have much in common beyond the color of their skin. So when Dave encounters another classmate, a fellow Celtics fan named Marlon Wellings, he’s thrilled not to be so lonely anymore.

Mar is a model citizen. He aspires to Boston Latin (unlike Dave, he actually studies for the exam), goes to church with his grandma every week, has a beautiful singing voice, and is genuinely kind not only to Dave but also to Dave’s nonverbal younger brother. But Mar also has his own share of family troubles, problems he can’t really share with Dave because he knows his new friend just can’t relate.

As Dave’s friendship with Mar evolves, readers start to realize that this is not just a sensitive depiction of adolescent boys’ friendships. As Dave navigates his shifting feelings toward Mar, he is coming to terms with his own religious identity (Mar is a devout Christian, while Dave is embarrassed to admit that his parents are secular Jews). He is also beginning to recognize --- even if he can’t exactly articulate --- his own implicit biases as well as the structural racism that affords him and his family very different options than those available to Mar and his family, even if they do happen to live just blocks away from one another and attend public schools.

“The force is everywhere, prying us apart,” Dave reflects near the novel’s end, as he wonders if his friendship with Mar is irreparably damaged. As Dave looks toward a future where he will attend high school and college surrounded largely by white people who have no direct relationships with people of color, he reflects on what he might be losing --- and what his new peers might never have a chance to know.

GREEN might be set a quarter-century ago, but it remains all too relevant for our times.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 5, 2018

by Sam Graham-Felsen

  • Publication Date: November 6, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0399591168
  • ISBN-13: 9780399591167