Arthur A. Levine, 2018. Hardcover, 352 pages
Mystery, Contemporary, Historical Fiction.
Staying in her late grandmother’s house for the summer, Candice discovers a letter with clues to a treasure hidden somewhere in Lambert. With the help of the boy across the street, she needs to decode the puzzle and this means piecing together the story of the Washington family chased out of town decades earlier and uncovering the identity of the treasure’s secretive benefactor, James Parker.
Candice’s grandmother, Abigail Caldwell, had tried to find the treasure a decade earlier. The book opens on black pages depicting that event. Her mistake was costly, but Abigail Caldwell has confidence in Candice’s ability to puzzle out what she could not—so she left the letter. But between the length of a summer and an abbreviation of a house renovation, Candice and Brandon will be strapped for time.
They have to piece together an significant event leading to the Washington family’s flight and the few who would’ve known prove scarce. Yet the remnants are everywhere, scattered about parts of Lambert. Few were left unscathed; and the revelation of the historical narrative shines a light on its impact. The reader will have the benefit of gray-paged chapters alternating between important figures relating to Siobhan Washington’s. Even with our readerly advantage, Johnson has the revelations and their pacing firmly in hand. Johnson will also compel us with more than one mystery.
You begin to sort through small interactions and revelations to uncover the secrets of characters—some mattering less as the story progresses because it no longer matters and maybe it shouldn’t have had to matter. We learn what we need to learn. I’m thinking Brandon, and Candice’s father to name two.
The Parker Inheritance offers a Westing Game level puzzle and a historical drama that doesn’t flinch, even if you might. There are stories of friendships and broken relationships and second and third chances; of grief and redemption; and hunger. The Parker Inheritance brings us a race against time in various ways—always conscious of history, the present, and the future; how each impacts the next…because it isn’t a game; it’s an inheritance.
Johnson gives us something that risks painful exposure, but one that promises incredible gain—and not just millions of dollars’ worth of treasure. That said, I’m not going to downplay that treasure because in context, it means resources. Resources previously denied and very much needed.
Every clue uncovered from its past propels Candice and Brandon forward and toward a broader future. The solving will confirm some things about them: their capability, curiosity, tenacity, and generosity (to name a few). Candice isn’t looking to find the treasure for only the money, but to reinstate her grandmother’s reputation. Her grandmother wasn’t a failure, and the novel tells us that in several ways: Candice being the most effective witness.
What happens to the Washington family, and those attached to their story, is heart-breaking. For all the ugliness it bears witness to, there is real beauty, too. Johnson carries this balance into the present day narrative where we observe the struggles of separation, poverty, violence; much of it based in racism. Both timelines mark intergenerational clashes; an elder’s concern with the romantic life of their charge. Every echo from the earlier narrative increases the tension in the present: what if Candice’s father takes on Big Dub’s parental demeanor with Candice? We see what the consequences of encounters with racists meant for the young black people in the past… And we’re reminded of a central question in The Parker Inheritance: how can the past not have consequences? Why wouldn’t actions of the present not have consequences?
Tori slows her car, not even daring the speed limit, terrified she’ll be pulled over. Black men and women and children are being murdered after traffic stops. Why must Quincy keep a secret? Why must Brandon—or anyone else be cautious of how who they are might be (mis)perceived? Bullies will escalate and their hatred will manifest itself in physical violence. Johnson will begin the conversation with something that seems just as harmless: like one of the opening conflicts between Candice and Brandon: the argument of “boys books” vs. “girls books” and why is there even a distinction? What makes that distinction and who made it? Also, why can’t Brandon be seen with a “girl’s book”?
Varian Johnson writes such a deep, rich novel that I could go on. The conversation on passing, for instance; and naming and identity.
I want to take a minute with one particular aspect (of the many) that stood out. Maybe I need to read more, but I hadn’t seen this conversation play out in a fictional narrative outside of adult fiction. It’s an interaction I feel white children and adults need to read.
In the past (gray-pages), we’ll meet white, Charles “Chip” Douglas and his father, Coach Adam Douglas, the white athletics director at the black high school where Enoch Washington is a teacher and coach. Chip falls in love Enoch’s daughter Siobhan Washington and is talking about “joining the NAACP, or going South to help [MLK and others] next summer” (168). The father begins to caution his son about his motives and the reality. It is, as with all of the novel’s witnessing of racism, uncomfortable. And so fucking necessary. The exchange closes with Adam Douglas telling his son this: “I don’t care how many courses you take or how many books you read. You’ll never understand what it means to be a Negro. You’ll never face the discrimination they see every day. You’ll never struggle the way they do” (170).
We’ll see an earnest Chip Douglas play this out. His father will point out an instance on page 172. Chip’s difference may inspire admiration, but he will make some mistakes that will endanger, harm, even traumatize black people. And we’ll learn that he will also go on to do good—because we do not give up on trying to grow. But the reality check is the thing. Johnson offers a lot of those.
And then a revelation will come that will up that ante.
The Parker Inheritance is puzzle book, a story of unlikely friendships, a contemporary historical fiction; it has humor, intrigue, community advocates, bicycles, sports, romance, and Juneteenth celebrations. How Varian observes the relationships between people and through time; their mystery and horror and loveliness…
If I had to recommend one book for young people (and old) for Black History Month reading: The Parker Inheritance. It hits all the emotions, provokes all the thoughts, interrogates all the perspectives, and—most important—centers and keeps the narrative focused on black lives. Beautiful.
Recommended for all the libraries; a great book club read. Rewarding for readers of The Westing Game and for avid reader nerds especially (you will feel validated). Read it aloud, or family read it. Great for summer, gearing up Juneteenth or Black History Month; inspiring for uncovering some family histories or community histories, museum going or engaging the elderly person in your life.