Ghetto Cowboy is one of the Lovelace nominees this year that has surprised me–in a great way! As Ghetto Cowboy opens 12-year-old Cole is being driven by his mother from their home in Detroit to Philadelphia–where his father lives. Although we are never given the specific details of Cole’s behavior which impelled his mother to decide he might be better off with the father he has never known, we do learn that Cole’s actions have earned him a school suspension and required attendance at summer school in order to pass to the next grade. He has clearly been acting in a way his mother feels incapable of managing. The rawness of both Cole’s pain and his mother’s in that car in the first chapter rises like steam off the page to the reader.
Cole’s father is a cowboy. When Cole first enters his father’s run-down apartment in the Philadelphia ‘hood’ he finds one of the walls broken through into the long-abandoned apartment next door and a horse in residence there. Cole–and the reader–begin to learn about the Cowboy Code and way of life that has existed in this inner-city Philadelphia neighborhood and the difference that it makes in the lives of its community members:
“Save one kid by getting them into horses and it’s all worth it,” Harp says to me….”You never know what someone will do with his life once he finds himself.”
Ghetto Cowboy is remarkable in two ways: (1) I had no idea this entire cowboy culture still exists–and this IS contemporary fiction based on a true cultural phenomenon; and (2) it tells an amazingly tender and accessible story of a young boy deciding who he will be–who and what he will listen to and value. Cole’s story, his insights into himself and his parents are touching and realistic:
Helpless. I think of all the times I felt that way. Most of the time maybe. I thought I was the only one feeling like that. And there she was, feeling the same thing all along.
Ghetto Cowboy could be used in a classroom in a number of ways from history to social justice conversation. It has ramifications in racial, economic and political arenas through ideas and examples that are accessible to the middle school audience for which this work is intended. For the same reasons Ghetto Cowboy is an excellent read-aloud or independent read at home. I am grateful to G. Neri’s work for giving me knowledge and insight I did not have before reading Ghetto Cowboy and which will inform my beliefs, choices and actions going forward.