When Johnquell, a seventeen-year-old African-American with a college scholarship, passes away after a gruesome accident in his white neighbor’s home, his community must find ways to bridge the gaps between races, ages, and orientations in their neighborhood. In nine linked short stories, Jennifer Morales untangles the complicated relationships among African-American and Puerto Rican teens and their white classmates and teachers, Vietnam vets, Latino landlords, former Black Panthers, and all their sprawling families as they search for common ground.
Morales’s collection is truly masterful, diving deep into her characters and layering them one on top of another to weave the vibrant tapestry of the Rust Belt neighborhood. Each of the nine stories highlights a different member of the community, and the author fully develops each, inhabiting the unique and believable voices of a grade school girl, an elderly racist neighbor, a sexually confused middle-aged woman, and many others. Morales’s thorough fearlessness extends beyond the voices of the characters; she penetrates the contemporary culture of racism and bigotry in a way that elicits empathy and demands respect from even the most detached of readers.
But Meet Me Halfway accomplishes something that many race stories don’t: This collection doesn’t divide good from evil, but paints the community in endless shades of gray. In the first chapter, readers are introduced to an elderly woman who cannot fathom why her best friend would go out of her way to cook dinner for her black neighbors. Later on, though, Morales tells this woman’s own story, and we see her as a widow rattling around in a too-large house, struggling to come to terms with her age as her family pressures her to move into an assisted-living facility. In no way does Morales excuse or undermine the bigotry her book addresses; rather, she villainizes the behavior while portraying its perpetrators as complex, multidimensional human beings. In this way, because no one “antagonist” is beyond repair, there is hope for a better future.
Meet Me Halfway has already been chosen as the Common Reading Experience for the incoming class at University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, and this is a title that truly deserves that recognition. Morales, who lives in Wisconsin, tells a Wisconsin story—a Midwest story—using one of the country’s most segregated cities as a backdrop. But the fact is that her message is evergreen and universally relevant, and her approach is gentle and insistent, preaching a vision of the future that makes room for every voice and every creed.
April 2015, Terrace Books/University of Wisconsin Press
$19.95, paperback, 192 pages
—Reviewed by Sarah Weber