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Dean Myers is one of the most prominent African-American writers for
children and young adults. In Handbook
for Boys he tells a story with a purpose, as he explains in the
preface. His aim is to provide a
portrayal of role models for young African-American men of the sort he would
have found useful at their age. Jimmy
is 16 years old, and is about to be sentenced to six months in a juvenile
facility for beating up another boy when Duke Wilson, who owns a barbershop,
makes an offer to take on Jimmy as part of a community mentoring program. He finds that 17-year-old Kevin also works
at Dukes; Kevins arrangement is to work for Duke for two years in exchange
for Duke paying for Kevins first two years of college. Kevin does much better at high school than
Jimmy, and the two are suspicious of each other. But they both have a lot to learn from Duke and his friends, and
Duke is very willing to give his opinions on life to the boys.
One of Dukes first striking words of wisdom to
Jimmy is about the importance of thinking things through for himself, and he
talks about Descartes discussion of the foundation of knowledge. Duke even says he thinks that children
should be taught philosophy as soon as they start school, because learning to
think for oneself is the most important skills in life. As different customers and friends come
through the shop, Duke chats with them about their lives and after they leave,
he discusses what they said, what they achieved, and what their faults are. Duke seems rather judgmental, and his judgments
might seem rather ponderous and deliberate ways for Myers to insert his own
views of life. But the novel is well
written, and as vividly performed in the unabridged
audiobook by Peter Francis James, the story remains interesting all the
way through. Duke has a wry humor and
down to earth wisdom that has a lot of charm, and the different characters that
sit in his barbers chair are captured in winning vignettes.
Im hardly in a position to judge whether young
African-American men will find Handbook for Boys inspiring, but Myers
certainly attempts to create a dialog between the generations in this novel,
and it a far more thoughtful approach than documentaries such as Scared
Straight about the importance of obeying the law. [Note,
parenthetically, that a documentary on Scared Straight! 20
Years Later has recently been made.]
Especially interesting from a psychological point of view are Dukes
reflections on how people know what is right and yet fail to live up to their
own ideals, especially when it comes to taking drugs. Its hard to imagine that reading one book will make a great
difference to young men struggling with a variety of temptations, but Handbook
for Boys could at least be part of the solution.
web page with RealAudio excerpt
© 2002 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.
Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College,
Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main
research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry. He is especially interested
in exploring how philosophers can play a greater role in public life, and he is
keen to help foster communication between philosophers, mental health
professionals, and the general public.
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