A Fist for Joe Louis and Me

Trin­ka Hikes Noble (auth.), Nicole Tadgell (illus.)

  • Review
By – January 7, 2020

It isn’t easy to be a hero — some­times stand­ing up instead of stand­ing by invites dif­fi­cult con­se­quences. A Fist for Joe Louis and Me tells the sto­ry of two boys in Detroit dur­ing the Great Depres­sion, one African Amer­i­can and one Jew­ish, and how they forged a bond through their shared admi­ra­tion for box­er Joe Louis. In 1938, heavy­weight cham­pi­on Louis defeat­ed Ger­man fight­er Max Schmel­ing, sym­bol­i­cal­ly knock­ing to the ground the Nazis’ spe­cious racial the­o­ries which deemed Louis infe­ri­or to his Aryan” rival. Gordy Williams and Ira Rubinstein’s faith that Louis would pre­vail reflects their own expe­ri­ences, as well as that of their par­ents’, at a time when racism and eco­nom­ic hard­ship test­ed many Amer­i­cans. Trin­ka Hikes Noble and Nicole Tadgell craft a mov­ing and believ­able tale, in which phys­i­cal courage and moral con­vic­tion are the right course in a fright­en­ing world.

Noble’s lan­guage is straight­for­ward, but as rhyth­mic as a boxer’s one-two punch: That fall my father lost his job, and his big strong hands turned into tense clenched fists.” She sim­pli­fies facts and empha­sizes key details, keep­ing the momen­tum of the sto­ry mov­ing. Gordy’s moth­er needs to help sup­port their fam­i­ly by sewing at home for Mr. Rubin­stein, a tai­lor. The Rubin­stein fam­i­ly is new to Detroit and Ira’s lack of famil­iar­i­ty with the city con­trasts with Gordy’s deep knowl­edge of his home­town. Adults will rec­og­nize his­tor­i­cal facts about Jew­ish involve­ment in the nee­dle trades and the dis­parate impact of the Depres­sion on African Amer­i­cans, but chil­dren will be engrossed in the nar­ra­tive with­out this back­ground. The boys are clear­ly dif­fer­ent, but they share their fam­i­lies’ vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties and their mutu­al con­scious­ness of fascism’s loom­ing threat.

When Ira becomes the vic­tim of a bul­ly, Noble choos­es to present Nicky Benkows­ki as every child’s night­mare. Nicky taunts Ira, call­ing him a skin­ny lit­tle punk,” but in real­i­ty, he almost cer­tain­ly would have used anti­se­mit­ic epi­thets. When it becomes appar­ent that Ira’s attempt to ignore his tor­men­tor is inef­fec­tive, Gordy needs to make a deci­sion, and so does the author. Noble’s descrip­tion of Gordy’s response suc­ceeds in rein­forc­ing the val­ue of stand­ing up to aggres­sion with­out glo­ri­fy­ing the neces­si­ty for vio­lence. The fight scene, which is cen­tral to the book’s mes­sage, is nuanced, point­ing to Gordy’s almost bal­let­ic skills in defend­ing his friend while imag­in­ing the calm and steady voice of Louis encour­ag­ing him in his bravery.

Tadgell’s pic­tures beau­ti­ful­ly evoke the era, mak­ing the sto­ry both spe­cif­ic to its his­tor­i­cal moment and a time­less explo­ration of friend­ship and loy­al­ty. Scenes of the boys prac­tic­ing box­ing ren­der them as blue shad­ows, while oth­er images are ful­ly real­ized por­traits of peo­ple sup­port­ing one anoth­er in adver­si­ty. She is equal­ly adept at con­vey­ing inte­ri­or moments of thought and dra­mat­ic action sequences. In one pow­er­ful sum­ma­ry of the book’s mes­sage, the two fathers clasp hands across a kitchen table where a cof­fee cup and news­pa­pers in the cen­ter are sim­ple reminders of a shared moment. Tadgell unapolo­get­i­cal­ly calls for emo­tion­al iden­ti­fi­ca­tion through bold ges­tures and expres­sive faces as char­ac­ters inter­act with one another.

A Fist for Joe Louis and Me is high­ly rec­om­mend­ed for chil­dren as well as for adults inter­est­ed in pre­sent­ing a shared moment of his­to­ry for African Amer­i­cans and Jews. It includes an Author’s Note,” which adds brief his­tor­i­cal back­ground and explains how Noble came to write the book.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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