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Review: Random Family

random-familyTitle: Random Family
Adriene Nicole LeBlanc
Literary Journalism
Rating: ★★★★☆

One Sentence Summary: For 10 years, LeBlanc followed two romances — Jessica and Boy George and Coco and Cesar — through gangs, drugs, prison, and poverty.

One Sentence Review: This book is a seminal piece of literary journalism for good reason — it is a must-read book for anyone curious about the stories behind headlines about the ghetto.

Long Summary: Jessica and Cesar are brother and sister living in a family trying to make it in the middle of a drug infested neighborhood. Coco, who lives down the block, falls in love with Cesar while staring out her living room window. Jessica, a girl who has always wanted more, gets involved with one of the neighborhoods most dangerous heroin dealers, Boy George. Both romances take a turn when Boy George is arrested and jailed for his gang activities, Jessica is convicted as an accessory, and Cesar goes to jail, leaving Coco pregnant and alone.

The rest of the story follows Jessica, Cesar, and Coco as they each try to make it through what they’ve been dealt and dealt themselves. Coco ends up the mother of more children than she can afford, finding herself homeless and trying to navigate the complex welfare system alone. The book profiles the other people in and out of these three lives to paint a portrait of ghetto life as one generation’s mistakes seem to doom the next before they even have a chance to grow up.

Long Review: Random Family is one of those seminal pieces of literary journalism that I think any serious journalist should read. It’s also an important book for anyone to read because it takes time to tell stories that often get ignored and points out how even people with the best of intentions are human. It goes deeply into the stories behind headlines, the people who get left behind, the mothers, the people caught in the middle, to show this complicated web of random chance and association.

LeBlanc doesn’t seem to get involved with her characters; despite spending 10 years with them, I always felt like she was representing them fairly. In fact, there were times when she was almost too nice to them, I wanted her to get mad or point out their mistakes or something. But LeBlanc stays out of the story, letting her character’s actions speak. But I think it’s the fact that LeBlanc doesn’t judge that makes the book so effective. It’s really, really hard to read the stream of bad decisions that Coco, Cesar, and Jessica continue to make. And every time you think of them is making progress, they’ll make a decision that sets them back. I spent the book switching between genuine concern and overwhelming frustration about what was happening.

Another really effective part of the story is the use of letters between the characters. While Cesar is in prison, he and Coco send each other a near constant stream of letters (it’s too expensive to visit, and Coco is often too poor to afford a telephone line). In this one, Cesar writes to Coco urging her to stay away from the Bronx (she’d recently moved to a suburb to try and raise her girls away from bad influences):

Try to move and stay in Albany think of the kids and stop thinking of yourself all of the time. … You had those kids for all the wrong reasons, and now you’re paying the price. I know I’m in jail for something I did, but with your selfish a** self and your selfish way of living you’ve mad things psychologically worse for my daughters and yours. I am not saying you are a bad mother. You take very good care of my kids and I will never take them away from you, but your ruining their minds. But you don’t see this because you’re too busy f***ing and having babies after babies by dudes who don’t give a f*** about you or (THEIR) kids…

Coco was the character I rooted through for the whole book, but it’s moments like this letter where I can’t help but feel as some of the despair I knew she was feeling. Cesar doesn’t really take responsibility for his actions (multiple children from at least three different women, gang activity, murder, jail), but he doesn’t give Coco the space to be responsible either. By the end of the book, Coco is living on welfare with five children to support and hardly a baby’s father in sight. Other letters help illustrate how little education any of them have, as well as how little agency they feel to make changes for themselves.

Although the details of this specific, random family is astounding, I felt like the book didn’t do enough to provide context for this story. There’s a concept in narrative nonfiction coined by, I think, Lee Gutkind, called Story/Information. Basically, a narrative nonfiction piece uses story to trick a reader into absorbing information. The writer tells story for awhile, then switches to sharing information for as long as they believe the reader will pay attention. And then, before they lose the reader with too much “boring” information, they switch back to story and grab the reader again.

This book is very, very heavily weighted to story at the expense of the information that puts Coco and Jessica and Cesar’s stories into a larger context of drug culture in the Bronx. There is a lot of information about how the prison system works, some of the welfare and service systems, but not much about where their story fits. I know a lot about this specific family, but not as much about the world they inhabit as I wish that I did.

That said, I think this book is important and should be read.

Is this a “Book of Our Time”? Yes, I think so. Poverty, drugs, and the problems of mandatory minimums are a major issue in the United States. Even without some of the broader context I craved, the book does more to illustrate the problems in this system than anything I’ve read. Coco and Cesar aren’t particularly special, but that’s exactly why this book is important – this is a story that could happen to anyone born without the opportunities so many of us enjoy.

Other Reviews:

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Valerie October 14, 2009, 9:45 am

    Nick Hornby mentions this book in “The Polysyllabic Spree” and since then I’ve been wanting to read it. It was interesting to read your point of view on this book; especially your feeling that there wasn’t much about how they fit in the world around them. I wonder if it is because of the type of lives they led, that it would be almost impossible to? For example, if you are in prison, that is a world in its own.

    • Kim October 15, 2009, 6:32 pm

      Valerie: I think it would have been a challenge provide context, and maybe more than this book was trying to do. But I feel like even just a little more would have been huge — what laws were happening at this time, what was the overall crime rate in the Bronx… anything to give a sense of how typical or atypical this story is would have helped me.

  • Jodie October 14, 2009, 12:03 pm

    That sounds great, especially the use of letters, so little contemporary non-fiction includes large parts of correspondence.

    • Kim October 15, 2009, 6:32 pm

      Jodie: The letter’s were great, very telling. I’d get frustrated with the characters, then read one of the letters and be starkly reminded how different their lives are from mine. I wasn’t necessarily less frustrated, but at least a little bit more understanding.

  • Florinda October 14, 2009, 12:36 pm

    I read this several years ago – pre-blog – and it made a lasting impression on me. I agree that it certainly is a “Book For Our Time.” Great review, Kim!

    • Kim October 15, 2009, 6:33 pm

      Florinda: I think it’s a smart choice for a “book of our time,” both in the storytelling style and in what it’s writing about. Even being written some time ago, it’s still relevant.

  • Kathy October 14, 2009, 2:12 pm

    I went through a period when I read everything I could find about gangs, so I’d like to read this book. It’s so hard to understand the lives of these kids until you read something like this.

    • Kim October 15, 2009, 6:35 pm

      Kathy: Yes, it’s almost impossible to imagine. I’d forget how young Coco was all the time. For most of the book she was younger than I am, yet she’s raising five babies on a single welfare check… I couldn’t do that, and I’m so lucky I’ve never been close to having to make those decisions. This book is very detailed about the things that happen behind the big stories — I think you’d like it.

  • Vasilly October 14, 2009, 3:43 pm

    I have read so many great things about this book and said that I would read it one day. I’m really going to have to put this at the top of my TBR list.

    • Kim October 15, 2009, 6:35 pm

      Vasilly: Good, it’s a tough but fascinating book. I hope you get to it 🙂

  • softdrink October 14, 2009, 7:56 pm

    Not that I’m pressuring you to start reading Gang Leader (despite the email I sent), but it sounds like it would be interesting to compare the two books. Gang Leader talks a lot about life in the projects of Chicago, and what people do to circumvent the systems (housing authority, welfare, child welfare, law enfrocement…) and what the choices they make.

    • Kim October 15, 2009, 6:36 pm

      softdrink: You make a good point — Gang Leader in comparison to this book would be interesting. I carried it around all day today, in case I finished school reading and could get to it… that didn’t happen 🙁 Gang Leader sounds like it has some of the context I wanted from this book, so it’d probably help.

  • Eva October 14, 2009, 11:45 pm

    This has been on my radar for at least two years, so I’m glad to see a review of it!

    I recently watched a five-part mini-series/documentary thing on the Sundance Channel called Brick City about Newark, NJ. It was fascinating! If you have digital cable, I could watch it for free on demand.

    • Kim October 15, 2009, 6:37 pm

      Interesting! I don’t have cable, but my local video store sometimes has documentaries and stuff like this — I’ll look for it.

  • J.T. Oldfield October 15, 2009, 4:26 pm

    Wow, this really does sound amazing! Though depressing as well.

    • Kim October 15, 2009, 6:37 pm

      J.T.: It was really depressing, in parts, the moments when someone made a terrible choice or the moment when they just didn’t make a “good choice” were hard to read.

  • Freddy Anglero June 13, 2011, 11:00 am

    The book was interesting. I read it 3 times and it was, to the point and right and exact. Ms. Leblanc told the story in a way as to get the point across without having to get into graphic detail. She is a beautiful woman Ms. Leblanc, with a heart of gold. I wish she would do a second part to the book to show how everyone made out thru their troubled times. Cesar, if you saw him now you wouldn’t think he been through those tough times in his life. His life spun a full 360. He is older now and so much wiser. Everyone else is doing about the same. You live and you learn. It’s about were you grow up and the decisions we choice to make. Living in the ghetto we need to break the cycle of poverty and foolishness by teaching the young ones. Some will get it and others won’t. they’ll just have to live and learn. all in all it was a good read.

    • Kim June 13, 2011, 8:51 pm

      I would love a follow up book to see how the different people are doing, but I’m sure it would be a huge amount of work too.

    • Cher macfarlane February 17, 2012, 3:16 am

      Im from australia & just read this book, im still overwhelmed by it. Going through all the same things here as a teenage mum was not the norm but not half the ordeal it sounds in the bronx, my heart goes out. Wish i knew how coco, jessica, serena, brittney, stephany, matthew, michael, my fav, mercedees, nikki, nautica, pearl & LeBlanc all fared. I really grew to adore them.