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Review: Fire in the Ashes

September 16, 2012

Jonathan Kozol has been working with inner-city children for decades.   He goes into the poorest neighborhood in the country and befriends and acts as an advocate for the children there.   Because he is empathetic and non-judgmental, the friendships he forms with these children and their families is lasting.  In his latest book, Kozol revisits thirteen of the children he has known through the years.  These children are from Mott Haven, a very poor section of the Bronx, or have been homeless and lived in shelters like the Hotel Martinique – both places breeding grounds of desperation.  Every child he writes about has had a person or organization intervene on their behalf.

Years ago, I read one of Jonathan Kozol’s books and was struck by his compassion and honesty, so I was anxious to read his latest, Fire in the Ashes.  Once again, he moved me with his words.  I’m happy to report that many of the children who he writes about in this book have fared well.  These are children who have grown up in horrible conditions and attended inferior schools and have somehow risen above it all.  Of course, there are others who aren’t so successful and, as I read, I couldn’t help but wonder about those who he didn’t write about – those who had no one to help them.  Kozol says:

So long as very poor black and Hispanic children continue to be locked into nearly absolute racial isolation in underserved and underfunded schools, the innovative efforts of successive mayors and their appointed chancellors to create “successful” separate and unequal education in New York will likely be in vain.  That, at least, is the lesson history has taught us ever since the benighted ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson was accepted as a proper guideline for the education of our children — which, in spite of its reversal in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, is still effectively accepted and almost never questioned by those who run the New York City schools.

I have to admit that I was floored when I read that and wondered how anyone could find that acceptable.  I also wondered how the school system could get away with such obvious inequities.  I think the poor and homeless are ignored far too often because many people assume they’ve done something to put themselves in the situation they’re in.  This book dispels that myth and puts a human face on an often voiceless part of our society.

I know I haven’t done this book justice, but trust me when I say it’s excellent.  I found it compelling and emotional.  Parts of the book angered me but, in the end, it gave me hope.  I’m hopeful because there are people like Kozol out there fighting for change.

I listened to the audio version of Fire in the Ashes – it’s narrated by Keythe Farley and he does an outstanding job.  He does an excellent job with voices and, to me, it felt as if he were the author, sitting down and telling me a story.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book and told everyone about it as I listened to it.  The audio book is on 9 CDs and last approximately 11 hours.  If you’re at all interested in social justice, this is a must read.

Review copy provided by Random House.  I am an Indiebound Affliate.
22 Comments leave one →
  1. sandynawrot permalink
    September 16, 2012 7:05 am

    This sounds amazing, but probably frustrating and maddening as well. We have some pretty bad schools here in Florida, and there are some wonderful tutoring programs and things within the community. What frustrates me is that I see these kids who are bright, but they get no support from home. Most of the time, it is completely up to the kid to get to school, get breakfast, and do their homework. No support at all.

  2. September 16, 2012 7:12 am

    It sounds like a great audiobook, but a discouraging one! It’s so hard to improve schools without also improving the lives kids are coming into school from, and the schools alone can’t really do that, so it goes round and round. Although, you say in the end, you were left hopeful, so I’ll add it to the list!

  3. September 16, 2012 8:54 am

    This book sounds very interesting. And also sad to read about children who didn’t do great in life.

  4. September 16, 2012 9:01 am

    I read something by Kozol years ago for a college course and I agree – he is passionate about these kids and treats them with the dignity and respect they deserve. I’m with Sandy on this one – it’s so sad how many kids don’t have the support they need at home. A lot of the time the parents are struggling just to put food on the table, but even so it’s heartbreaking how poverty is a vicious cycle that runs through the generations. I love that people like Kozol are out there at least trying to make a difference. I should definitely put this on my list.

  5. September 16, 2012 10:08 am

    I love Kozol and I love books about education, but they always leave me sad, indignant, and frustrated!

  6. September 16, 2012 10:20 am

    I haven’t heard of this one, but now I am eager to check it out! That passage really moved me and it’s saddening that the people who have the power to change things won’t even question such practices!

  7. September 16, 2012 12:11 pm

    I would be interested to read this. I teach in a deprived area of inner London so I know first-hand how complex these issues are. I hope the book isn’t down on schools because here at least, we are given the same resources as schools in more affluent areas, the same everything and expected to get the same results, often with little or no parental support and children that are complex with many needs.

  8. September 16, 2012 1:44 pm

    I’ve just checked this book out from the library and I’m glad to hear that it’s a great read. It is frustrating that this is supposed to be a land of equality where everyone can reach the American Dream, but it has to be even harder when your first step on the ladder – school – isn’t even good enough to help you go farther.

  9. September 16, 2012 2:19 pm

    There is a special place in heaven for people who do this kind of work. I’m sure it is both heart-breaking and hopeful to read the follow-up stories for these kids. For every success I am certain there are some tragic failures. I’ll have to look for this one.

  10. Beth Hoffman permalink
    September 16, 2012 3:05 pm

    Terrific review, Kathy. Bless Jonathan Kozol.

  11. Patty permalink
    September 16, 2012 3:46 pm

    I know…it is truly just so unfair and so sad.

  12. September 16, 2012 4:35 pm

    Sounds like a very moving book. Very nice review!!

  13. September 16, 2012 4:41 pm

    How sad for children who do not get the opportunity to be well educated and get a chance to make something of their lives. I’m glad you found this book to be hopeful.

  14. September 16, 2012 8:50 pm

    This happens everywhere except for the richest areas…the way each school is funded is wrong. Down in the suburbs a school can receive 10,000 per pupil while where I work it is now 6,500. How is that fair and equitable? Each child and their education is precious. Until we change the funding issue not much will happen.

  15. September 16, 2012 9:02 pm

    This sounds very interesting… improving education to ALL children could make such a difference.
    Thank you for sharing about this book.

  16. bookingmama permalink
    September 16, 2012 9:40 pm

    This one sounds fantastic. It’s so hard to believe that stuff like this is still happening in our country.

  17. September 16, 2012 10:48 pm

    I am looking forward to this one!

  18. September 17, 2012 11:42 am

    I have worked with the poor, homeless and destitute in the Appalachian mountains and have found that the general public does not realize how some inequalities still occur in the great states of America. I’m so glad you have shared this book and plan to find a copy for myself. Great review Kathy!

  19. zibilee permalink
    September 17, 2012 11:54 am

    I also work at a local food pantry, and you would be surprised at how many people there are in your own community that need help and that are using food banks and that require other types of assistance. What I love about this book is that the author is so nonjudgmental and that he follows up on the people that he has helped. There are not that many people out there who would do the types of things that Kozol has done. I’d really like to read this one. Great review today.

  20. September 17, 2012 1:10 pm

    This sounds like an excellent book and which I’d like to listen to rather than read in print format.. Unfortunately, my library only carries Kozol’s The Shame of the Nation on audio. I may start with that one and see if I can convince them to order Fire in the Ashes. Excellent review on a very important topic!

  21. September 17, 2012 11:20 pm

    We live in arguably the best school district in Ohio. We do pay dearly for it, something Jason and I do gladly, but I do agree that the way the poor districts are left behind is shameful. There must be a better way.

  22. September 18, 2012 11:25 pm

    Thank you for a powerful review. Certainly makes me want to search out for this one.

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