Happy Book Birthday to The Unsung Hero!
This is a middle grade book that I felt really got inside the mind of twelve-year-old Gabriel. It’s 1946, and Gabriel is super excited to receive his shiny new bike on his birthday, which he promptly takes for a spin. The very first time he rides it, he’s flying down the street, not paying attention to traffic at all when Meriwether Hunter knocks him off his bike and out of the way of a car that nearly hit him! His bike is a little messed up, but Gabriel avoids injury. Meriwether helps him fix his bike, and they begin a friendship that will shake up Gabriel’s world, changing the way he thinks of his little South Carolina town.
Meriwether is black, and he’s out of a job at the moment for unknown reasons (which Gabriel eventually finds out, through Abigail, Meri’s wonderfully blunt daughter), which is how he happened to be in the right place at the right time to save Gabriel’s life. Gabriel’s parents have always taught him to treat black people with just as much respect as white people, so he does, but his friendship with Meriwether teaches him that there’s more to the black struggle than just inequality in language. Gabriel quickly gets Meriwether a job at his father’s garage, but realizes that some of the white people who work with them feel hostile towards Meri and his family.
The ending left me feeling like nothing was quite resolved. Gabriel’s world view shifted, but nothing else changed, which I suppose is realistic. I’m glad that Meri made independent choices in this book and was able to show off some of his skills. However, the overall tone of the story was that Meri’s struggles were a vehicle for Gabriel’s learning experience, which left me with a funny taste in my mouth. For example, Gabriel decides to get a job to keep an eye on Meri to make sure the other workers don’t get aggressive (which feels a little white saviory, especially with the final action scene at the end there). His character was not as fully fleshed out as he might have been.
Abigail is my favorite character, as she’s quite blunt. Her commentary on the world is wonderful, I just wish she saw more action other than almost getting bitten by a snake.
I can see this being a good read aloud book to give kids a snapshot of post-WWII living in a small Southern town. Gabriel gets to be the bigger person with his friends, parents, and acquaintances, though, which is a good message for middle grade readers. On the other hand, the writing is rather simplistic and may not be a good fit for an avid reader.
I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.