On the national level, the Civil War rages and Abraham Lincoln has just instituted the first draft law. Wealthy businessmen can pay $300.00 to any man willing to take their place on the battlefield. Tensions are high as Irish immigrants compete with blacks for jobs.
Into this hot stew of passions and emotions, Myers places Claire, a 15-year-old light-skinned daughter of a black man and an Irish woman. Her struggles for racial identity and adulthood scaffold this dramatic narrative.
Here are some of the poignant questions which she asks during these tumultuous days. During the riots she asks, "If it's my skin that makes me unsafe, can I take it off and put it in the drawer somewhere until the streets are safe again?...Can I change [my skin] like I change my dress or my apron?"
To her mother she asks, "Where is this safety you're talking about? And if I'm black and you're white, where is this family you're talking about?"
As she muses about her own experiences during the riot she says, "I just wanted to be a human being...without a race or a place in life. What is so wrong with that?" And, "Our skin made us targets, not our hearts."
She realizes she is growing up when she says, "I'm finding a black woman where there was only a girl before."
She thinks about the future, after the war, and asks, "Will we be trapped in our skins? Forever held to being different because we are not white?"
Towards the end she concludes hopefully, "If we can't go back, we should try even harder to go forward."
I listened to the audio book which was enhanced by sound effects of the street scenes and period music, including a moving African American spiritual. The interview with Myers at the end was also insightful. I would recommend Riot for girls and boys of ages 12 and up; it will enhance American history classes as well as discussions on prejudice, immigration, economics, and race relations.