Life will break your heart. So will Jonathan Kozol’s Fire in the Ashes. It is full of life—messy, disorganized, broken and tragic, and yes, sometimes still full of joy and mercy and grace at unexpected moments. This latest account of the lives of the other Americans who peopled Kozol’s previous explorations of poverty and personal and institutional dysfunction brings his readers up to date on the children chronicled in Rachel and Her Children and Amazing Grace. We root for all of these kids to somehow escape the rotten so-called childhoods they experienced, enduring some of the worst sociological chapters in American history: homelessness in the ’80s, followed quickly by the crack cocaine epidemic and then further dislocation as welfare “reformed” around them.
So much was stacked against these kids maturing into successful, even happy adults, and so much promise was evident among them even in the suffering they experienced. But Kozol’s book is not a fairy tale; there are some happy endings here that depict the luck or the indomitable will of a few, but the biographies of casualties among Kozol’s kids are also included here, of course.
It is a temptation to read these stories of ruin or resurrection and ascribe these outcomes to the personal character of the children themselves, but Kozol will not let anyone off that easily. Just as no success story here remains the sole claim of an individual—all were touched at some point by the compassionate reach of social worker, teacher, stranger, even a dread poverty bureaucrat—none of the groaning failures can be exclusively assigned to Kozol’s subjects. The seeds of their destruction, he argues, were sown long ago when they were children and the adult society around them persisted in its indifference to their homelessness, the soul-grinding poverty and criminality of their surroundings and the abject failure of their public schools.
Despite the often heroic efforts of those who loved them or those who hoped to help them and finally by these children of poverty and want themselves, Kozol recounts with evident personal sadness the stories of those kids who did not make it, whose brokenness was too complete, who could not be saved or who could not figure out how to save themselves or let people save them. He captures, too, the sorrow and the frustration these losses create for everyone whose lives they touched, from family members to social workers and families who lent a helping hand to battle-weary journalists. You will need heart and a handkerchief to get through Fire in the Ashes. Bring them both.
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