Book Review: Riot by Walter Dean Myers

Depiction of the Draft Riots in 1863 from an u...
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I just finished listening to Riot by Walter Dean Myers.  I chose to read this Young Adult (YA) novel as part of a graduate class with the only restriction being a book by WD Myers. At first, three different books by him peaked my interests, Sunrise over Fallujah, Fallen Angels and Riot. They are all books about the experience of African-Americans within the constructs of the US military. I chose Riot because it is about a little known event in NYC during the Civil War.  Also, I’m a Civil War buff too.

First, the audio version was much better than reading the novel. WD Myers chooses to write the story in the form of a screenplay.  As a result the connective narrative between exchanges of dialog, tends to be too much detail and caused me to disengage from the story. During the interview at the end of the audio-book  he does explain that this was intentional since he wanted to show the visual changes of the city. Since the audio-book offers a full voiced cast for all characters, including the narrator, the story is much easier to follow and visualize. In addition to the story three extras are given, a Voiced timeline of events leading up to the Draft Riots, WD Myers reads his author’s notes, and an interview with WD Myers that is about twenty minutes. The interview is worth listening to but the timeline and author’s notes add very little.

The story is well written and rich in the issues of the draft riots.  The actions of the story take place during the middle of the draft riots after the Union Army arrives to put down the riot itself. Claire the main protagonist, has an Irish mother and a Black father who own the Peacock, a pub near the Five Points. By creating a main character that is both Black and Irish, we see the quandary of the riots themselves. It was not completely racial but more socioeconomic. For most of the story, Claire is slightly flat and one dimensional  but gains some depth and development after the witnessing the mugging/attacks that happen near her home. If the story were written in conventional form or epistolaries, Claire would make for a good choice as narrator and may actually make her stronger.

The general absence of Claire’s father during the beginning of the book is slightly odd considering he plays a large role in Claire’s choice during the middle of the story. He is look to as patriarch but the neighborhood boys. I understand that the fact he is at work, and  his presence will be limited because of his charcters’s duties in other places. His entering and leaving of the narrative is still disjointed. Upon reflection it is even more of an oddity considering he is the only adult african-american character in the main cast. Claire’s mother is with her through the first half of the book while they are slightly barracaded in the pub.  She plays the typical mother and is both the voice of the American Irish and the hopeful immigrant. She does offer the only real adult reflection within the cast but these are shaded as both immigrant fear and motherly.

Some of the more intimate scenes at times appeared randomly and forced into the narrative instead of being a part of the over all movement of action. Claire and Lancaster, he is a Wisconsin volunteer in the Union army, first meet and she drafts a letter to his family. The scene is at best innocent and reflective of the soldier’s life. At worst, it is transparently necessary to build tension during his death scene later in the story. Percy, Claire’s african-american friend, search for Precy’s aunt  in a hospital near the fighting. The result is a short scene of familial death, but actually is used as an transitional excuse to place the girls in the street with Maeve, when the fighting breaks out. Maeve, the female Irish atagonist, is a flat character as well. The short length of the novel only reveals her distaste for the draft and basic hatred of “darkies” as a result of not getting a job in Claire’s family pub, this is how she is introduced at the beginning of the novel.  Also the random interjection of Walt Whitman into the cast on the first day of the riots is odd and unnecessary. He comes into the pub to protect himself and his young black ward. Instead of elevating the story, Myers makes it seem as though the common man does not understand the broader scope of the war and the inevitable changes it will bring. This could have been accomplished by using a similar character without using Uncle Walt.

The end result is that students learn some of the constructs of the actual riot, but due to the structure of the writing, many may find the narrative difficult to follow and not rewarding. Given the struggle and violence that Claire is exposed to, she gains little and has some reflective thought on being a minority in a post slavery America. She has a wonderful line after the end of the second day of the novel, third day of the riots, “If only I could remove my skin and place it in a drawer until I can be see for more than what I am.” Walter Dean Myers is echoing some of Paul L Dunbar and Langston Hughes poetry on the Black Experience in NYC. However, this is lost in conclusion of the story and is wiped over by narrative ramblings of the characters who survived the violence.

Overall, worth listening to in class but don’t read it. Would be a great daily activity during a middle school Civil War unit. Twenty-five minutes a day and your done six days.


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