Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Richmond, Ken Alder, and The White Bus

Looks like I'll be moving back to the East Bay soon--Richmond, to be precise, a couple of miles away from where I grew up. Which puts me in mind of a novel by Ken Alder, a friend from elementary school.

Ken is perhaps best known now as a historian of science and the author of The Measure of All Things, which considers the history of the meter. The book inspired a long article in The New Yorker that year.

But well before Ken became a historian, he wrote a young adult novel called The White Bus (1987). Here's the review from Publishers Weekly:
San Francisco's Martin Luther King Jr. High School is a windowless prison attended predominantly by black students. Ira Allen decides to enroll there, along with his black friend Marc. His parents, who expect Ira to attend a prestigious prep school, are infuriated, which seems to be part of Ira's intention. Deriving its title from the nickname the kids at King give Ira's bus (because it transports kids from the overwhelmingly white suburbs), this promising first novel is the story of Ira's first year at King. Predictably, Ira learns a lot about different kinds of "smarts"; falls in love with a black girl; learns to "talk black." Alder's humor and genuine insights save the book from its stereotypical characters, from the doctrine-spouting Marxist "bloods" who regularly shake down their classmates, to the hip English teacher who sleeps with his students. Wavering between an account of a teenage rite de passage and an earnest statement on integration, the narrative displays a lively intensity that helps to compensate for its flaws.

But those who know Ken's history will recognize the autobiographical element. We lived in the El Cerrito hills. Kids from Richmond were bussed to our elementary school; for high school, the hill kids were bussed to John F. Kennedy High School on Cutting Blvd. in Richmond. So don't let the San Francisco setting fool you. It's all about life in the EC--and Richmond.

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