In his debut novel, Green, Sam Graham-Felsen achieves an extraordinary balancing act, creating a poignant and convincing coming-of-age story while at the same time reflecting much larger themes about race and the country’s changing social landscape. Set in Boston in the 1990s, Green is the story of sixth grader Dave Greenfeld, one of the only white students at an inner city middle school. The child of liberal, Harvard-educated urban pioneers, Dave finds himself the unwitting participant in a unique social experiment in which he must navigate the dual challenges of adolescence and his own complicated racial identity.
The book strangely echoes two very disparate works of nonfiction. The first, Common Ground, is the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by J. Anthony Lukas that chronicled race relations during Boston’s busing crisis of the 1970s. Like the Greenfelds, one of the families in Common Ground, the Divers, are also white liberals who attended Harvard and live in a transitioning neighborhood in Boston. Though well-intentioned, the Divers and the Greenfelds find themselves on the front lines of a community torn apart by race and class divisions, and both families put themselves in unintended jeopardy.
While Common Ground’s flashpoint moment is the busing crisis, Green dives in at another critical turning point, the L.A. riots. In a powerful and complex moment, Dave watches in horror as the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict sends L.A. into a whirlwind of violence, capped off when an innocent white truck driver, Reginald Denny, is dragged from his cab and beaten by a group of angry African Americans on live television. While Dave’s friends and neighbors cheer the beating, Dave feels sick to his stomach; he seems to intuitively understand that this moment signals a new divide between him and his classmates and between white and black America. Almost immediately after the riots, Dave is targeted and seen as an enemy in a way that he hadn’t been before.
Dave’s journey also ironically mirrors that of radio personality Howard Stern, captured in his raunchy autobiography, Private Parts. Like Dave’s mother, Stern’s mother was a devoted liberal who stayed in their Long Island neighborhood as its predominantly white and Jewish population left, and black residents moved in — leaving Stern to be mercilessly bullied by some of his black classmates in high school. Like Stern, Graham-Felsen’s Dave has an observant, honest sense of humor. Yet, while Stern becomes a racially-charged provocateur, Dave has a much more sensitive and nuanced reaction, longing to belong to the culture that seems hell-bent on rejecting him. Graham-Felsen paints a vivid picture of the cultural identity badges for urban boys that Dave desperately longs to wear: the Geto Boys, Nintendo, Air Jordans, and the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets, led by black superstar Larry Johnson.
Howard Stern, writing as an adult, peppered his book with punch lines and provocations, while Graham-Felsen, writing as adolescent Dave, fills his book with heartbreaking insights, difficult questions, and the faint but palpable hope of building bridges. Green bravely tackles the most intractable questions of race and identity from an unusual vantage point, elegantly revealing surprising complexities.
Robert Sharenow’s debut My Mother the Cheerleader was named one of the “Best Books of the Year” by the American Library Association, School Library Journal, and the New York Public Library. The Berlin Boxing Club, his second novel, won the Sydney Taylor Book Award and was a finalist for the Walden Award. He currently serves as Executive Vice President and G.M. of A&E Network and Lifetime.