Thursday, November 19, 2009

Mob scene

Walter Dean Myers has another book out this year: Riot (it's so recent, his website hasn't been updated). With this book, Myers returns to the format he used so successfully in the Printz-Award-winning Monster (which I read ... quite some time ago): a video screenplay.

In Riot, Myers places his fictional characters into an historical event: the 1863 draft riots in New York City. Working class whites, largely Irish, were outraged at the National Conscription Act for two reasons: 1) wealthier individuals could easily elude the draft by paying $300 and 2) fighting on behalf of enslaved African Americans was an unpopular cause. Many of the working class feared a mass movement of freed slaves to New York, African Americans who would take away precious jobs because they would be willing to work for less money. A mob formed to protest the draft, but quickly morphed (as mobs do) into vicious and murderous mayhem against both the obviously wealthy and African Americans. The Orphan Asylum for Colored Children at Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street was set on fire as its residents fled out the back door. After three days of rioting -- during which at least eight African Americans were lynched -- federal troops (some straight from the battlefield at Gettysburg) arrived and quelled the riot in a flurry of gunfire near Gramercy Park.

In Riot, the story revolves around Claire Johnson, biracial daughter of a black man and an Irish woman. Claire could pass if she chose to. But with two loving parents, and a relatively tolerant community, Claire has not had to choose a racial identity. But when people she knows begin to choose it for her, she begins to question who she is and her place in the world (oh, it's a teen novel!). She gets caught up in the riot because she and her father help to rescue the orphans.

In Myers' video format, we follow Claire through those three terrifying days, meeting other fictional participants along the way. (The book's only "real" person is Walt Whitman, who spends a few moments at the Johnson's public house, the Peacock Inn.) The "action" is both wide-screen (including a climatic battle scene) and focused on personal moments. A particularly touching one of these has Claire writing to dictation a letter to the parents of a young soldier.

The audiobook is quite brief (just about two hours) and has the most bling of any audiobook I think I've ever listened to. There is a large cast, various sound effects (door pounding, gunfire, screams and shouts, etc.), a lot of music cues (including a series at the beginning that cleverly take us from present day to July 1863) that underlie the narration as well as provide breaks between scenes, and an all-to-brief moment of choir singing; all overseen by the deep, neutral voice of the narrator, Dan Areskis (I'm spelling this phonetically). (The introduction of the audiobook says "read [it might be narrated] by Dan Areskis and performed by a full cast." I am kind of interested in the use of the two different terms.) The cast does a good job, their dialog sound authentic. The voice actors are all credited at the end, and many of the Irish characters appeared to be read by actual Irish people.

Frankly, though, it didn't send me. I find the format choppy, making the story difficult to focus on. New characters are constantly entering the story and I can't remember if I know who they are or not. The dialog is fairly expository and that grows tiresome. The video directions get in the way of the story -- there are just too many instances of "Cut to:" There are odd gaps of silence between scenes that seem to be closely connected. But, above all, the dialog all sounds like it had been recorded in a huge empty room -- extremely tinny and echo-ey.

What I did enjoy on this audiobook is its back matter. A brief timeline of events is read by the actor who plays Mr. Johnson (Arco Mitchell?) with a bit of spark and expression. There's a little more explanation of each event, instead of just the bare facts.

Then, quite of bit of time is devoted to Myers himself. First, he reads his author's note. He's not an outstanding reader, but his passion for the subject is obvious. The author's note is followed by a fascinating natural conversation between Myers and Barnet Schecter. Although the recording doesn't tell us, Schecter has written an adult nonfiction book about the riots: The Devil's Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America. (Click here and scroll down to a lecture on this subject by Schecter.) Myers' inspiration was, in part, the discovery and excavation of the African Burial Ground in lower Manhattan, which led him to research the history of African Americans in New York. From there, he made his way to the 1863 riots and this book.

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