How Did It Go Down? by Kara Rosenberg
How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon starts with an all-too-familiar scenario: a black teenager, Tariq, is shot by a white man in a poor, urban neighborhood that could take place in any city in America at any point in the recent (or not-so-recent) past. The novel begins with what seems like a straightforward police report and proceeds to tell the story of the shooting’s aftermath through short vignettes, written from the perspectives of various characters connected to Tariq and his death. The story that emerges is far from straightforward and defies our stereotypes at every turn. Readers and characters have to puzzle out the truth about Tariq: was he an innocent bystander or an aspiring member of the Kings (the Peach Street gang)? Was he the victim or the criminal?
At first, there are too many characters, too many emotions, and too many versions of how it went down. The chapters are short—mostly one to three pages. They rotate through the points of view of twenty different characters. I was dubious as to whether I would be able to keep twenty separate voices straight, but here Magoon shines as a writer. Distinct storylines quickly emerge, and she shows vividly how one death can ripple through a community.
There’s Will, a graffiti artist from the neighborhood who moved to the suburbs when his mom married Steve. Both Will and Steve are black, but they respond very differently to Tariq’s death. Will learned how to survive on Peach Street and feels drawn there after the shooting. Steve fears the violence of the ghetto and just wants to turn away. Tariq’s death creates conflict between them and makes them question how much of a father figure Steve should be for Will. When Steve insists on attending a pro-Tariq rally with his stepson, Will finds that Steve is melting through the tough veneer that he has always used for survival: “Steve’s arm tightens around me, and my eyes start going too. He doesn’t say a word, but I just know, the way you know things sometimes. I am under his wing, and I am in his heart. I won’t try to be your father, he told me, the day we moved our things into his house. I was grateful for him saying it, from that minute to this one, but I wonder now. Maybe that plan can’t last.” The book doesn’t solve their problems, but it does move Steve and Will closer to understanding each other.
There’s also Tyrell, Tariq’s studious best friend whose mission in life is to stay out of the Kings, get to college, and move off of Peach Street. Tyrell spends the novel in a state of confusion: the more he finds out about Tariq’s death, the more he questions who his friend really was. It looks like Tariq’s death is going to drain all the fight out of Tyrell until he has a moment of clarity about what Tariq’s life really meant. Towards the end, Tyrell says, “I don’t know who Tariq really was—if he was the way I see him, or the way Brick does. But I know who he would want me to be.” Tyrell’s story is one of the saddest. His chances of escaping the Kings in the end seem slim, but he ends the novel with an act of determination rather than one of defeat.
And so it goes for the other eighteen characters. One character says towards the end of the book, “[e]ach moment only pushes Tariq deeper into me.” The characters wrestle with what Tariq’s death will mean for them. Will it push them towards violence or away from it? How It Went Down doesn’t offer solutions to that problem, but it does offer a fresh look at an all-too-common story in which characters don’t always do what you expect them to.
Likewise, How It Went Down challenges readers to think about how we react to and make sense of racial and class-based violence. It lays open how subjective the “facts” behind the headlines that splash across our screens really are. Read this book and others by Kekla Magoon (The Rock and the River, Fire in the Streets, X: A Novel) for nuanced, compelling, fast-paced looks into issues of race and class in America.
Kara Rosenberg teaches high school English and history in Vermont and is currently on the Green Mountain Book Award (Vermont’s book list for YA readers) committee. She lives in Montpelier with her husband and two sons and knew she was doing something right when her 7-year-old recently came up to her with a copy of Amulet, saying “Mom, I have a book you have to read…”