Part historical fiction, part mystery and part contemporary middle years coming-of-age story, The Parker Inheritance weaves many themes into its complex, but highly structured, plot. The main character is Candice Miller. She is twelve years old and her parents have separated. She and her mother have come to Lambert, South Carolina to stay while their home in Atlanta is being renovated to be put up for sale. Candice’s grandmother (Abigail) had owned a house in Lambert and that’s where Candice and her mother have moved for the summer. Candice discovers that Abigail, the first African-American City Manager in Lambert, had followed the clues in a puzzling letter she had received in an effort to find a treasure that would benefit the town. Abigail had the memorial tennis courts at Vickers Park dug up in search of this treasure–but she found nothing. Abigail was fired and it was at that time she had gone to live with Candice and her parents. Although these events happened ten years before Candice moves to Lambert for the summer, and Abigail has died two years before we meet Candice, people in Lambert still regard her grandmother as a criminal, or just plain crazy.
An avid reader and puzzle solver, Candice begins to look through her grandmother’s things in the attic, hoping to find something interesting to read. She comes across a box labeled ‘For Candice.’ Among the items inside the box is the mysterious letter that had started Abigail on the trail of the hidden treasure–the Parker’s Inheritance–of the title. Candice’s love of a good puzzle as well as her desire to prove her grandmother was not crazy leads her to try and solve the riddle of the old letter herself.
Candice is introduced to Brandon Jones, the boy who lives across the street and the two end up discovering they have many things in common and become friends. Candice eventually tells Brandon about the letter and he joins her in the search to solve the puzzle and find the treasure. The clues in the letter lead the children to the story of Enoch Washington, his wife, Leanne and their daughter, Siobhan. The story of the Washingtons (an African-American family) and how they were run out of town in 1957 by a group of white men is the foundation of the letter’s secret.
The Parker Inheritance is told in alternating timelines, switching from Candice in present day to members of the Washington family in the 1950s. Candice and Brandon realize that understanding what happened to the Washington family in 1957 is the key to solving the letter’s puzzling message. As they pursue both the letter’s riddle and the history behind it Candice and Brandon deal with uncomfortable (and dangerous) aspects of discrimination in their own lives. Johnson does an admirable job of connecting the past to the present in a tangible way as part of the story.
The majority of the book was well-plotted and for the most part I liked the structure of alternating timeline narration. The story fell apart a little for me at the end. For me, it felt as if the climactic scenes in the book were a little watered down and strung out much longer than was necessary. Regardless, I give the book a 4/5 stars because the pacing throughout the majority of the book flowed easily, the characters of Candice and Brandon were charming and real. The Parker Inheritance is a great independent or read-aloud choice for middle grade readers. I did love the way Candice found her voice at the end of the book. She clearly shows herself taking the next step (as opposed to just thinking about it) in deciding the kind of person she will be in this world. The main characters are twelve so it will probably have the most appeal to students in 5th – 7th grade. This would be a great classroom companion to units on Black History, social justice and discrimination (both racially and gender motivated). There are numerous springboards for discussion woven throughout the story. In addition, The Parker Inheritance is a genuinely good story about growing up, looking honestly at the past and creating a better present for everyone.