There Are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz

March 17, 2014

no children here Sumary (from Wikipedia): There are No Children Here follows the lives of two young brothers, Lafeyette and Pharoah Rivers, who live in the Henry Horner Homes, one of Chicago’s subsidized housing projects in the inner city. Lafeyette and Pharoah, aged 11 and 9 years at the start of the book in 1987, live with their mother, along with their many siblings periodically, and rely on welfare and federal assistance. The book depicts them deprived of most luxuries and in constant struggle to survive. The burden of their struggle falls on Lafeyette’s shoulders as he tries to protect his brother and help his mother with their daily needs. The brothers live in the midst of violence wrought by local gangs who control the entire housing project. The gangs sell drugs, fight rival gangs, hire residents to keep and store drugs and weapons, and lure children to sell drugs in the neighborhood. Children living in the projects seem to have a bleak future awaiting them if they manage to survive to adulthood.

Reaction:

I really liked the premise of this book. I had never heard of the Henry Horner Homes before, and thought it would be incredibly intriguing to get an inside account of what it was like to grow up in one of the worst public housing projects in Chicago. And initially, Kotlowitz delivered on this promise. The first 1/3 to 1/2 of the book was gripping, as I was drawn into Lafeyette and Pharoah’s world of gangs, drugs, poverty, shootings, and other random violence. The details came fast and furious, and kept me turning the pages.

But then things started to feel rather repetitive, with Kotlowitz more or less just enumerating all the problems the boys and the Rivers (real name: Walton) family had to endure on a daily basis: The overcrowded apartment, lack of food, lack of new clothes for school, drippy bathtub faucet, absentee/drug-addicted father, gang problems, etc. etc. I mean, I get that this is what the family actually lived through every day, but that doesn’t mean the reader has to be subjected to the info over and over again.

That being said, I think the kids–Pharoah in particular–come off very well in the book. They are shown to resist the temptations that others in their situation so readily succumb to, and they managed to mostly steer clear of conflicts with the law (at least during the period about which Kotlowitz was writing). That was a rather remarkable accomplishment in itself, and due credit must be given to the kids (and perhaps to their mother, LaJoe, as well — though her track record with her other kids and her penchant for all-night gambling sprees stops me short of awarding her “Mother of the Year” status).

Since this book was originally published in 1992, I was hoping that a new edition would be available with updates on how the boys’ lives have turned out. That wasn’t the case with the copy I got from the library, but I was able to find a relatively recent (2011) article online. Unfortunately, both Lafeyette and Pharoah ended up serving time in prison and both are still caught in the vicious cycle of poverty into which they were born. I was hoping at least one of them would make it (Pharoah seemed to have the best chance), but I also know the odds were not in his favor — to put it mildly.

Rating:

There Are No Children Here started out well, but didn’t have enough steam to maintain that momentum all the way through. While the tale of the two Rivers siblings and their family had some interesting moments, I feel that there just wasn’t enough noteworthy material for a whole book. This is one of those in-between topics that isn’t well-suited for a particular medium: there’s too much for a newspaper or magazine piece, but not enough for a book of this length. Overall, I give it 3 stars out of 5.

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