I knew that I could not let our novel-in-verse theme go without reviewing at least one Nikki Grimes’ novel. I was looking for her Planet Middle School when I chanced upon Dark Sons by accident. When I discovered that it was also a novel-in-verse and received a Coretta Scott King Honor, I borrowed it immediately from our library. I also knew that it would be perfect as our contribution for Book Talk Tuesday hosted by Kelly Butcher from The Lemme Library.
Layered Verse / Dual Voices. The book moves back and forth between modern-day Sam and the biblical Ishmael, the first son of Abraham. The verses are powerfully-layered with the Prologue introducing us to the two voices in the book: Sam and Ishmael. The difference can clearly be delineated structurally: through their language (Sam using a more contemporary/colloquial voice) and in the fonts used which gives the reader a clear view of who is telling whose story.
The novel is subsequently divided into four separate books: Books One and Three refer to Ishmael’s story while Books Two and Four are Sam’s. The Epilogue successfully ties the story together – illustrating beautifully how the dual voices reflect a similarly-veined narrative. I remain in awe at how tightly-woven the intricacies of this layered tale demonstrate the parallelisms of the human experience regardless of time, space, geography, or skin color.
Ishmael and Isaac. I was educated in a Catholic school from the first grade until my pre-tertiary years. Studying the Bible was mandatory. However, I was not able to fully appreciate the lyrical prose, the drama, the intrigue – until Nikki Grimes re-introduced the Biblical story of Ishmael-Abraham-Isaac as well as Sarah and Hagar through this lovely novel.
Reading through this Biblical account as seen through the voice of heartbroken Ishmael reminded me of my new favorite TV series Game of Thrones with all the severed promises, blood lines, betrayals, drama, intrigue. As Ishmael noted:
What a twisted story, I thought.
Born of such a history,
I can expect my life to be
anything but easy. (p. 58)
The reader also gets to know Abraham and Sarah through Ishmael’s eyes – the firstborn who was supposedly the promised one – and his feelings of displacement when Isaac was borne from Sarah’s loins. Beyond the biblical prophecies and the divisiveness of resulting ideologies and belief systems, I was struck by how poignant and real Ishmael’s voice was as spoken through Nikki Grimes’ writing.
HALF AND HALF Half Chaldean. Half Egyptian. Half slave. Half free. Half loved, Half hated. Half blessed. All me. (p. 22)
Here is another passage that speaks of Ishmael’s burning (and inevitable) resentment towards his younger brother Isaac:
Father offers this prayer for all to hear. Isaac he calls First Son. Now I am less. And what is less than one? From the corner of my eye I watch my mother smother her anger in silence. Lacking such skill, I storm out into the night and cough up my complaint to the stars. (pp. 146-147)
There is something so cohesive and fluid in the way that Nikki Grimes shares this young boy’s narrative – you know that you are at the hands of a master storyteller who has managed to cast a spell on you – each line filled with stunning brilliance, each verse a sparkling truth conveyed in metaphors swimming in the brackish brutish waters of betrayals and staggering pain.
I feel that this passage from the poem entitled Straight Talk (pp. 155-56) would be a perfect match to the image I managed to find above:
Three days ago, I drifted off to sleep on the pillow of my father’s familiar prayer: ‘Lord God, bless my sons.’ For years, I was the only one to speak of. Father’s love for me was not imagined. So why this madness? Sending my mother and me out into the wilderness? For what sin have I been judged unworthy?
Sam and David. As we move to present-day time, the reader is introduced to teenage Sam whose father has left them for another woman. This could be clearly seen in the poem: Why Her? (p. 84)
Why this twenty-five-year-old Snow White, all light eyed and tousled tresses? Might as well be blond to complete the cliché: black man breaks black woman’s heart to marry white witch. News at eleven. Please. At least he could be original.
Each day, Sam is forced to contend with his mother’s pained/numbed strength, his own feelings of betrayal, and coming to grips with the reality that he is now being tossed from one household to the next – in “shared time” between the two people he loves most in the world – this is clearly seen in the poem Two Houses (p. 112)
Trading spaces makes me dizzy. Two houses, two beds, two dressers, two closets, two sets of rooms and rules, two sets of parents who split on the shoulds and shouldn’ts. Einstein would have trouble keeping track. I lack the finesse, myself, and so sometimes I throw my hands up, go for a walk, and tell the so-called grown-ups to work it out.
Similar to Ishmael, Sam also feels torn about his feelings for younger half-brother David. On the one hand, he feels stricken at the idea of sharing his father – the little he has left of him. Yet, the sight of bubbly, trusting, undeniably cute David has transformed Sam into a big brother.
I groan about babysitting, but truth is, I enjoy the little sprout. I take him out to the park, packed in two pounds of snowsuit, snuggle with him on the icy kiddie slide, then make him chase me for a sip of hot chocolate. Two-year-olds are a blast. When I’m with David there’s no past, no future, no emotional tightrope I’m forced to walk between Mom and Dad and his new family. It’s just David and me. Two brothers rolling in the grass, laughing ourselves silly. (p. 133)
The reader is drawn into the lives of these two young men – startlingly different from each other – yet also strikingly similar in more respects than one. The layers of their parallel universes moving towards the same torturous path – the feeling of sinking into quagmires of sharp-edged anger, brittle despair, and blinding hurt that knows no name – yet the layers neither collide nor touch each other in physical form – except in verse.
On Blended Families and Ruptures that Strengthen the Spirit. The fairytale that love lasts forever – bright, painted, pictures of forced gaiety and togetherness ala Disney’s happy-ever-afters permeate the consciousness of most people. An ideal, hardly-ever-achieved, consummate happy-family-portrait with its glassed-in-sheen a faded version of buried secrets, stonewalled laughter, patched together by patient (yet exhausted) hands. Family means different things to various people. This novel has served to demonstrate through verse how such irreparable ruptures (which make one freefall into the wilderness like Hagar and Ishmael – or “sink like stone” similar to how Sam has described it) – could serve to strengthen the human spirit, one’s resolve to be whole from within – sans the trappings of societally-sanctioned behaviors of what-shoulds or what-shouldn’t-bes. And finding peace and quiet amidst gnarled-fingered-pain clutching one’s insides.
Resource for Teachers. I was able to find a helpful resource that teachers can use if they wish to introduce this exquisitely-written novel in their classrooms. Nikki Grimes has this list of suggested activities and resource for teachers provided by Tracie Vaughn Zimmer which you may want to check out.
Nikki Grimes is a multi-award-winning author and poet of more than 31 children’s books. She received the 2003 Coretta Scott King award for her novel Bronx Masquerade as well as a 2003 Coretta Scott King Author Honor for her picture book Talkin’ about Bessie: The Story of Aviator Elizabeth Coleman. Her books have likewise been cited as Notable Books by American Library Association. She lives in Corona, California (source of info: jacketflap of the book). If you wish to know more about Nikki, click here to be taken to her official website).
Dark Sons by Nikki Grimes. Jump at the Sun: Hyperion Books for Children, New York, 2005. Book borrowed from the Community Library.
Dark Sons by Nikki Grimes was the recipient of a Coretta Scott King Honor award.
AWB Reading Challenge Update: 4 of 35