The cover of Endangered doesn’t do it justice. It makes the book look like a middle-grade or YA novel, which it is not –although it would make great reading for high school students. Endangered is a legal thriller that tells the “ripped from the headlines” story of Malik Williams, a 15-year-old African-American boy in Philadelphia who is arrested for a murder he didn’t commit.
Malik’s story is told through the perspective of his mother, Janae. When a human rights organization, headed by skilled attorney Roger Whitford, offers to take on Malik’s case at no charge, Janae is dubious. Is her son really part of an “endangered species”, as Roger claims?
“Wait! Endangered? I’m not following you. How will Malik get out of jail? How is this going to help my son? I haven’t even seen him . . . The dan-ger, the real danger, is in him being in jail, which is not where he belongs.”
The author, Jean Love Cush, is a journalist and an attorney. A native of Philadelphia, she started her career at the District Attorney’s office there. Then she joined Legal Aid as a family law attorney, helping battered women escape domestic violence. She also hosted a weekly current affairs radio show, “A View From the Summit”, which led her to investigate gun violence in the inner city and the impact on black boys:
What I learned was devastating. It inspired me to write a story exploring violence, race and the criminal justice system from the perspective of an African-American mother. This turned into my novel Endangered . . .
I read Endangered in just a couple of sittings, anxious to know if Malik would be exonerated and if the real murderer would be found. The plot is well-constructed, with plenty of tension and some twists and turns. The legal complexities of the case fascinated me — particularly the issue of juvenile offenders being tried as adults. Clearly, Jean Love Cush knows Philadelphia and she knows Pennsylvania law. I get frustrated with legal mysteries (like Scott Turow’s) that take place in fictional locations. Setting the story in a real place gives the book an extra dose of reality. William Landay successfully did this in Defending Jacob, one of my favorite recent legal thrillers, and Cush brings Philadelphia and its court system to life in the same way.
As a mother, I identified with Janae — her deep love for her son, as well as her pain and frustration. Any mother, when faced with a child in trouble, would second-guess her own culpability, as Janae does:
I keep replaying the past fifteen years in my head, about how I’ve been raising Malik. I’ve been living my life in a dark haze, drifting aimlessly with Malik in tow. Before his arrest, I was so preoccupied with trying to provide for his basic needs that I neglected the most important things . . .I just want him to be a strong man, a good man.
Cush’s portrayal of Roger Whitford is particularly strong. He is blunt, brilliant, and a bit mysterious. What are his motivations for running CPHR (Center for the Protection of Human Rights) and taking Malik’s case? Cush gradually reveals Whitford’s character and background, eventually drawing a portrait of a complex man.
Calvin Moore, the African-American attorney who made it out of the inner city to join a white-shoe Philadelphia law firm, was less interesting to me. He seems like more of a stock character — the success story who ignores the plight of his own community. When first asked to take the case, he says, “‘I get it that black boys are in trouble. I lived it. I still live it. But I would like to believe that a lot of the trouble, at least now, is self-inflicted'”. Later, Calvin changes his opinion . . . which may or may to have something to do with his feelings for Janae.
The voice that is missing from Endangered is Malik’s. Obviously, Cush’s intention was to tell Malik’s story from the point of view of the adults surrounding him — but I would have liked to have heard about Malik’s ordeal from his perspective. Perhaps Cush structured the novel in this way because Malik is meant to stand for all black boys who are treated unfairly by the legal system? But I wanted to know more about Malik as an individual.
The novel clearly was meant to be more than a page-turner. It was intended to make a point — that our justice system is unfair to black youth– and it successfully makes that point. But is that what fiction should do? Endangered seems a little heavy-handed and polemical to me. It is definitely an “issue” novel as much as it is a legal thriller. There are, of course, many well-regarded novels that focus on social problems — The Jungle, Sister Carrie, The Grapes of Wrath,Native Son, to name just a few — and scholars have always argued about the relationship of literature to social issues.
I’ve read several outstanding nonfiction books about African-American single mothers trying to raise sons in difficult environments. I highly recommend A Hope in the Unseen: An American Odyssey from the Inner City to the Ivy League by Ron Suskind, Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, and The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore. They are filled with real-life Janaes and Maliks.
I reviewed Endangered for TLC Book Tours. Please check out the other stops on the tour!