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Armstrong and Charlie: 11/26/17

Armstrong and Charlie by Steven B. Frank

Armstrong and Charlie by Steven B. Frank is set in Los Angeles in 1974. The plot takes place in two neighborhoods — Laurel Canyon in the Hollywood Hills, and South Los Angeles. One is an upper middle class, mostly white neighborhood. The other is a working class, mostly black neighborhood. The book covers the first year of bussing black students to white schools in an effort to better integrate the schools. The school in question is Wonderland Avenue Elementary School.

Armstrong LeRois has been signed up for Opportunity Bussing by his parents. As the youngest of a huge family and the only son, he's grown up feeling like he doesn't really have a place. Everything is hand-me-downs — even when they are embarrassing pink shirts. His father runs the household, having lost his leg in the war, and now living with PTSD. Meanwhile, Mom works long hours in a local hospital.

Charlie Ross attends Wonderland Elementary and is watching most o his friends flee for farther away schools for sixth grade. Their parents don't want their kids exposed to the bussed in kids. Charlie though has other problems — a mother suffering from debilitating depression — and an upcoming birthday that will make him older than his brother who died the year before of a severe asthma attack.

Scenes through out the book are narrated in alternating voices — starting with Charlie and then switching to Armstrong. Some scenes are also then summed up through incident reports by the yard duty officer. For the audiobook, each of these voices gets a different narrator. Sometimes the swapping out of voices takes me out of the story, but here the decision to use three performers serves the novel well.

The book takes place a decade before I was in elementary school, but not a lot had changed between Armstrong and Charlie's time and my time. I bring this up because near the end of the book the characters wonder if the opportunity bussing would ever go in the other direction.

I don't know if Los Angeles ever did, but I can say that San Diego tried it for a little while. I was part of test program that ran during my fifth grade. We were bussed from Curie Elementary to Webster Elementary. It was a fourteen mile drive and was only a half year commitment. The other half of the year we were bussed out to the Grantville area to an arts magnet school. I guess there the thought was to show us the extreme other end of things — that our school wasn't the all that we might have thought it was.

But looking at the Webster Elementary School experience — I don't think it came close to what our counterparts endured. Our school, like Charlie's school, was sold as the "better" and "safer" school. It was better and safer mostly because we were a white neighborhood but that doesn't mean we made the school welcoming to our bussed in classmates. We ridiculed them. We egged them on, inciting fights.

When we were bussed, our parents had to be placated. To keep us "safe" in a mostly black school, we were given handlers — I shit you not. We were kept primarily in segregated classes except for a few hours a day when we were given a chance to learn with our hosts. It was basically a year of inner city tourism to pretend the injustices and inequalities weren't all that bad.

Five stars

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