How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon. October 21, 2014. Henry Holt and Co. 336 pages. Ages: Teen & Up
Tariq Johnson, a black teenager, was on his was on his way back after running to the store to pick up a few things for his mother, and a candy bar for his little sister. But he never made it home. Instead, a car pulled up, and a white man jumped out and shot him twice, the second shot after Tariq already lay on the ground bleeding.
In the aftermath, there are many unanswered questions: Did Tariq have a gun? Why did the shooter stop in the first place? Was Tariq in a gang? Was it racially motivated? Everyone tells a different version of the events of that day, and seemed to know a different side of Tariq Johnson. Will anyone ever know the truth of exactly how it went down?
This story is told from the points of view of many different characters, constantly switching back and forth, so it can be confusing and hard to keep up with, and slightly annoying. I think it would have been better if some of the characters had been left out; for example the whole sub-plot of the ongoing flirtation between Kimberly and the opportunistic "minister" with political aspirations Alabaster Sloan, who seems to be an amalgam of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, just seems like a distraction from the main question, which is what really happened when Tariq was killed. It also turned me off a little that the story was so obviously based on the Treyvon Martin case; I would rather see a little more originality.
This book did do a good job of illustrating how nearly impossible it is to ever know what really happened in a case like this. Although there may be many witnesses, they will each have a different version of what happened, and they may all believe they are telling the truth. The problem is, we all perceive things slightly differently, based on our own experiences and prejudices. For example, when the shopkeeper called "Stop, T", the white bystander sees a black kid in a hoodie rushing off with an armload of goods, and thinks he hears "Stop, thief!", when in reality the shopkeeper just wanted to give Tariq the change he left behind. It also showed how hard it is for kids to resist the pull of the gangs, although I don't think those of us who grew up in different circumstances can ever really understand that.
Although I did think the myriad points of view and sub-plots was a bit confusing and excessive, I did like the story of Jannica, and how Tariq's death ended up being a turning point for her, helping her realize she wanted something more than that kind of life, and giving her the courage to break it off with her gang-banger boyfriend.
I would recommend this book for class discussions, book clubs, or anyone who wants to read something serious and thought-provoking that might make them question their own beliefs and face their own prejudices, and look at things from another perspective. Fans of All American Boys by Jason Reynolds or Monster by Walter Dean Myers would probably enjoy this book as well.
Other Books By This Author
Kekla Magoon is the author of several young adult novels, including the award-winning The Rock and the River, as well as non-fiction books on historical subjects.