For me, a good novel is peopled by characters so real you feel you know them. This was how it was with Ray and Jose, the teenagers at the center of Paul Griffin’s Ten Mile River. The boys, who met and bonded during a stint in juvenile detention, have cobbled together a life on the margins in New York City. They steal food, grills, and cars, but they also share scarce food with a passel of mutts, wrestle and make jokes about body smells, noises and haircuts. Ray meets Trini during a trip to the braid shop for his weekly haircut. Though smitten, he introduces Trini to Jose and watches helplessly as they get together. Trini’s aunt Yolie, the big-hearted proprietor of the braid shop, offers the boys the closest thing to hope and normalcy they’ve seen for a while. Despite Trini’s urging and Yolie’s offer of honest work, the boys can’t quite extricate themselves from their thieving associates.
The narrative power of this slim volume is strong. I didn’t want to put it down; I devoured it in two sittings.
Luckily, I had Griffin’s the orange houses to pick up next. In it, I met the unforgettable Mik Sykes, Jimmi Sixes, and Fatima. I swallowed this one in a single sitting/lying down. Mik can’t hear well and likes to let the world fade into the background. Jimmi is a mentally ill vet and street poet. Fatima is a refuge from a failed African nation with a talent for folding paper. Griffin brings them together in a powerful story of friendship.
If I were teaching high school English or facilitating a book group with young adults, I would suggest these books. Griffin is a skilled writer who has spent enough time with adolescents in tough circumstances to pick up the lingo, to see through their tough outer shells, and to examine their deepest desires.
I am glad I met Griffin at the recent Mississippi Library Association conference. I’ll be keeping an eye out for more of his work.