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Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America

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   In this powerful and culminating work about a group of inner-city children he has known for many years, Jonathan Kozol returns to the scene of his prize-winning books Rachel and Her Children and Amazing Grace, and to the children he has vividly portrayed, to share with us their fascinating journeys and unexpected victories as they grow into adulthood.    For nearly fifty    In this powerful and culminating work about a group of inner-city children he has known for many years, Jonathan Kozol returns to the scene of his prize-winning books Rachel and Her Children and Amazing Grace, and to the children he has vividly portrayed, to share with us their fascinating journeys and unexpected victories as they grow into adulthood.    For nearly fifty years Jonathan has pricked the conscience of his readers by laying bare the savage inequalities inflicted upon children for no reason but the accident of being born to poverty within a wealthy nation. A winner of the National Book Award, the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, and countless other honors, he has persistently crossed the lines of class and race, first as a teacher, then as the author of tender and heart-breaking books about the children he has called “the outcasts of our nation’s ingenuity.” But Jonathan is not a distant and detached reporter. His own life has been radically transformed by the children who have trusted and befriended him.    Never has this intimate acquaintance with his subjects been more apparent, or more stirring, than in Fire in the Ashes, as Jonathan tells the stories of young men and women who have come of age in one of the most destitute communities of the United States. Some of them never do recover from the battering they undergo in their early years, but many more battle back with fierce and, often, jubilant determination to overcome the formidable obstacles they face. As we watch these glorious children grow into the fullness of a healthy and contributive maturity, they ignite a flame of hope, not only for themselves, but for our society.      The urgent issues that confront our urban schools – a devastating race-gap, a pathological regime of obsessive testing and drilling students for exams instead of giving them the rich curriculum that excites a love of learning – are interwoven through these stories. Why certain children rise above it all, graduate from high school and do well in college, while others are defeated by the time they enter adolescence, lies at the essence of this work.    Jonathan Kozol is the author of Death at an Early Age, Savage Inequalities, and other books on children and their education. He has been called “today’s most eloquent spokesman for America’s disenfranchised.” But he believes young people speak most eloquently for themselves; and in this book, so full of the vitality and spontaneity of youth, we hear their testimony.


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   In this powerful and culminating work about a group of inner-city children he has known for many years, Jonathan Kozol returns to the scene of his prize-winning books Rachel and Her Children and Amazing Grace, and to the children he has vividly portrayed, to share with us their fascinating journeys and unexpected victories as they grow into adulthood.    For nearly fifty    In this powerful and culminating work about a group of inner-city children he has known for many years, Jonathan Kozol returns to the scene of his prize-winning books Rachel and Her Children and Amazing Grace, and to the children he has vividly portrayed, to share with us their fascinating journeys and unexpected victories as they grow into adulthood.    For nearly fifty years Jonathan has pricked the conscience of his readers by laying bare the savage inequalities inflicted upon children for no reason but the accident of being born to poverty within a wealthy nation. A winner of the National Book Award, the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, and countless other honors, he has persistently crossed the lines of class and race, first as a teacher, then as the author of tender and heart-breaking books about the children he has called “the outcasts of our nation’s ingenuity.” But Jonathan is not a distant and detached reporter. His own life has been radically transformed by the children who have trusted and befriended him.    Never has this intimate acquaintance with his subjects been more apparent, or more stirring, than in Fire in the Ashes, as Jonathan tells the stories of young men and women who have come of age in one of the most destitute communities of the United States. Some of them never do recover from the battering they undergo in their early years, but many more battle back with fierce and, often, jubilant determination to overcome the formidable obstacles they face. As we watch these glorious children grow into the fullness of a healthy and contributive maturity, they ignite a flame of hope, not only for themselves, but for our society.      The urgent issues that confront our urban schools – a devastating race-gap, a pathological regime of obsessive testing and drilling students for exams instead of giving them the rich curriculum that excites a love of learning – are interwoven through these stories. Why certain children rise above it all, graduate from high school and do well in college, while others are defeated by the time they enter adolescence, lies at the essence of this work.    Jonathan Kozol is the author of Death at an Early Age, Savage Inequalities, and other books on children and their education. He has been called “today’s most eloquent spokesman for America’s disenfranchised.” But he believes young people speak most eloquently for themselves; and in this book, so full of the vitality and spontaneity of youth, we hear their testimony.

30 review for Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America

  1. 5 out of 5

    Jay Connor

    It takes all the way to the Epilogue to hear Kozol’s message that he has been honing through 25 years of interviews with children of urban poverty: “Charity and chance and narrow selectivity are not the way to educate the children of a genuine democracy.” I agree. Unfortunately, this comes after of book of revisiting many children he has introduced to us over the past several decades, some with sad and fully expected derailments and others like “Pineapple” and “Jeremy” who have achieved academic It takes all the way to the Epilogue to hear Kozol’s message that he has been honing through 25 years of interviews with children of urban poverty: “Charity and chance and narrow selectivity are not the way to educate the children of a genuine democracy.” I agree. Unfortunately, this comes after of book of revisiting many children he has introduced to us over the past several decades, some with sad and fully expected derailments and others like “Pineapple” and “Jeremy” who have achieved academic breakthroughs despite coming from “neighborhoods of widespread destitution” principally because of charity and chance. By not giving his readers this message frame, this book, as his others, can reinforce a very different and debilitating message. Jonathan Kozol has been called America’s premier chronicler of life among children of societal neglect. Though we tend to forgive Kozol’s aren’t-I-empathetic style and his I-have-a-relationship-with-these-poor-kids tone, I do believe that his style and tone have contributed to a response to his stories that is at conflict with his central hope: these kids deserve better. (Notice how many failed Colleges of Education he has been invited to address/commiserate with or in how many “post-modern,” navel-gazing Education courses his books are assigned reading). In fact, I have seen/heard too many use Kozol as a justification that because of their circumstances, we can’t expect as much from these kids. “Developmentally Appropriate” is the guise of denying stimulation/expectation because these kids are so unfortunate. This is in the face of research that shows that these kids are more than capable of succeeding academically without do-gooder props or preference. There is a stronger relationship to their success with our (especially teachers’) expectations than with the children of poverty’s capabilities. It doesn’t have to be the minority of Kozol’s-kids who succeed. And here is where Kozol is pitch perfect: we should not “celebrate exceptionality of opportunity,” but rather we can achieve transformative outcomes, irrespective of ethnic or economic background, for all children if we “give to every child the feast of learning that is now available to children of the poor only on the basis of careful selectivity or by catching the attention of empathetic people like the pastor of a church or another grown-up who they meet by chance.”

  2. 5 out of 5

    Cara

    Jonathan Kozol follows the lives of children he met 10-20 years ago living in homeless shelters or poor neighborhoods in New York. These stories alternate between inspirational and heartbreaking, but it's mostly just heartbreaking. It shouldn't be surprising, but children who spend their formative years hungry and homeless in poor, violent neighborhoods with terrible schools often do not turn out to be healthy, well-adjusted adults. It could easily seem exploitative to write about these children Jonathan Kozol follows the lives of children he met 10-20 years ago living in homeless shelters or poor neighborhoods in New York. These stories alternate between inspirational and heartbreaking, but it's mostly just heartbreaking. It shouldn't be surprising, but children who spend their formative years hungry and homeless in poor, violent neighborhoods with terrible schools often do not turn out to be healthy, well-adjusted adults. It could easily seem exploitative to write about these children and their parents, but Jonathan Kozol has an incredible amount of compassion and respect for the people he writes about, and I get the impression that not only does he really care about them, but they in turn really care about him. The children who do go on to "succeed" in this book are able to do so only because of luck. Luck that they were born intelligent, luck that their parents were loving, healthy, and alive, luck that some outsider cared enough about them to try to help them, luck that they managed to even make it to adulthood without being killed. This is great, and these kids should be celebrated for their hard work, because they certainly wouldn't have made it without a great deal of hard work. But hard work is not enough to help anyone without luck. What about the others? The book is best summed up by this quote from the epilogue: Charity and chance and narrow selectivity are not the way to educate children of a genuine democracy.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Sera

    Overall, a very interesting look on how the poor in America are unable to get a solid education. Kozol introduces us to a number of children who grew up in a part of the Bronx, NY, which is considered the poorest community in the US, and does a nice job telling their stories. The important things that I learned from this book (in no particular order) are: (1) success is relative and needs to celebrated as such; (2) the kids who "make it" are the exception rather than the norm, and each one had s Overall, a very interesting look on how the poor in America are unable to get a solid education. Kozol introduces us to a number of children who grew up in a part of the Bronx, NY, which is considered the poorest community in the US, and does a nice job telling their stories. The important things that I learned from this book (in no particular order) are: (1) success is relative and needs to celebrated as such; (2) the kids who "make it" are the exception rather than the norm, and each one had someone who took an interest in them and helped them to get a better education; and (3) in many parts of the US, education remains a segregated institution where the public schools are underfunded and the children who go to these schools are being ignored. So what do we do? The thought is to make incremental changes rather than taking on the entire issue, which is overwhelming. For example, high teacher turnover makes it difficult for children to learn. Another issue is the wasted funding for "speciality schools" that are intended to prepare children for different types of careers, say in the medical field, that don't work. The money used to fund these schools could be used to create programs to try to get more of these kids on the path to college. All in all, this book gave me much to think about, and I give Kozol much credit in the amount of time he has spent with the kids that have been the subjects of his research. What a great person he is!

  4. 4 out of 5

    Amanda

    True equality means equal opportunities and safety for all, and a book like this is a bit unique in that it doesn’t just look at inequalities but also examines the long-term effects of attempts at intervening and helping people who basically got the short end of the stick. Kozol succeeds quite well in analyzing what has worked and what hasn’t in the Bronx where a large part of his social justice career has been. The chapters each focus on a different child, although a couple of children get their True equality means equal opportunities and safety for all, and a book like this is a bit unique in that it doesn’t just look at inequalities but also examines the long-term effects of attempts at intervening and helping people who basically got the short end of the stick. Kozol succeeds quite well in analyzing what has worked and what hasn’t in the Bronx where a large part of his social justice career has been. The chapters each focus on a different child, although a couple of children get their own chapters. Kozol met the children either in one of the infamous 1980s NYC homeless shelters or at an after-school tutoring program offered at a church (St Ann’s) in the Bronx. There are a few things that are immediately apparent from observing the long-term trajectory of these kids, which is why a book like this is so valuable for social justice work. First, all of the kids who were homeless or who spent a long time in homeless shelters had many more problems and difficulties later in life. It is clear that homelessness has a long-lasting negative impact on children, no matter how many good opportunities come to them later in life. Similarly, girls seem to stand a better chance than boys of climbing out of the poverty they grew up in. Kozol never makes any clear speculative statements as to why he thinks this is, but the multiple lives we observe clearly demonstrate that boys are more targeted than girls both by the crime lords and by the police. The other big theme of the book is of course how educational inequality entrenches classism and racism. Kozol has spent most of his career working in improving education so it’s not surprising this is a theme of the book. One thing that stood out to me was how quickly kids are lost if they never get a firmly established literacy and sense of confidence in their ability to learn. Once kids start getting held back a grade or fall below grade level, it is incredibly easy to become discouraged and turn to what appears to be an easier life of crime. Kozol ends the book by talking about what he sees as progress and how the now grown-up kids he worked with see possible solutions. He’s adamant that even small gains are gains. He views any child whose life ultimately is one of peace and self-worth as an accomplishment, whether they even completed high school or not. To a certain extent I agree with him, but to a certain extent I agree much more with one of the grown-up kids (who just so happens to be about my age) who argues that small changes aren’t good enough. That the inequality is so deeply entrenched that we must truly rock the system and not just save one child at a time. She does ultimately agree that the small changes are still worthy of praise and is working on a degree in sociology so she may go back to the Bronx and focus in on small changes. That then is the question at the heart of this book and one for which there are no easy answers. How do we fix this problem? It’s difficult to say who this book will appeal to. It’s not a clear treatise on the educational system or social justice. It is one man’s observations of the lives and life stories of inner city youth he worked with. It is not academic per se but it’s also not exactly a memoir either. I think perhaps that it will appeal most to anyone whose day to day job involves having small influences on the education of individuals. It clearly shows how much impact one person can have on another person’s life, particularly when it comes to education and literacy. Overall then I recommend this to those who work in education whether formally or informally. It is encouraging to see the perspective of an older person who has clearly seen how his life work has impacted the kids he worked with. Check out my full review. Note: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Mikey B.

    This is truly an inspirational book which confirms, that by helping one, this can radiate to many; having a long term beneficial effect for all. We follow the lives of a few people from the Bronx in New York City. Some overcome the poverty, the poor education, and the crime and drug culture to rise up and above. We also see some, who sadly, do not make it. They are the victims of both themselves and their harsh living environment. In this predatory environment it is easy for the government to avo This is truly an inspirational book which confirms, that by helping one, this can radiate to many; having a long term beneficial effect for all. We follow the lives of a few people from the Bronx in New York City. Some overcome the poverty, the poor education, and the crime and drug culture to rise up and above. We also see some, who sadly, do not make it. They are the victims of both themselves and their harsh living environment. In this predatory environment it is easy for the government to avoid improving the schools and housing, cleaning the streets of drug dealers. The people in the Bronx are marginalized by their race, their poverty and their illiteracy. The author provides us with a view of the streets and schools of the Bronx that would be unacceptable to the wealthier denizens of Manhattan who have the means and power to improve their living standards. For instance, the affluent would never accept an unqualified teacher for their children. But it is those who have helped to pull themselves out of the Bronx maelstrom that overwhelms me. Some of them were helped by others, such as Pastor Martha Overall who has dedicated her life to assisting and guiding a community to overcome their obstacles. Here we witness people of faith who are truly altruistic and make things happen for the better goodness of all. The people they have aided get an education, become good human beings and often return better able to aid those who are living a life of crime, drug addiction, prostitution...In the end these people become better parents and hold a job in the workplace. This is a book about individuals struggling. There are no easy solutions. We witness all this through the telling observations of the writer over many years.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Deb (Readerbuzz) Nance

    Jonathan Kozol breaks my heart every time I open one of his books. Who knew the suffering children are experiencing in homes in the poorest areas of our country? Who knew how schools, the last hope of many, are giving up on these children? Who knew? Kozol revisits children he has run across in his work in the schools in the past forty years. For many of these children, life has only gotten more difficult and many of these stories end tragically, with prison time and even in death. But there are h Jonathan Kozol breaks my heart every time I open one of his books. Who knew the suffering children are experiencing in homes in the poorest areas of our country? Who knew how schools, the last hope of many, are giving up on these children? Who knew? Kozol revisits children he has run across in his work in the schools in the past forty years. For many of these children, life has only gotten more difficult and many of these stories end tragically, with prison time and even in death. But there are happy stories, too. As I was reading along, with one devastating story after the other, I was at the point, mid-book, where it was too painful to go on. It was almost as if Kozol realized that, too, and the stories suddenly began to shift and Kozol began to tell the stories of lives redeemed and saved along with the bleak. A book that is a reminder to all of us of the power we hold in our hands to help or hinder those too weak or too tired to make it on their own.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Huma Rashid

    I have been a fan of Jonathan Kozol and his work since I read Savage Inequalities in college, and I was thrilled to be able to review an ARC of his newest book, exploring the intersection of race, poverty, and childhood in the South Bronx, illustrated by children and families near and dear to Kozol's heart. The book, which is a compilation of about a dozen stories, each one focusing on a different child or family, but framed under the general narrative of the effect of poverty and racism on educ I have been a fan of Jonathan Kozol and his work since I read Savage Inequalities in college, and I was thrilled to be able to review an ARC of his newest book, exploring the intersection of race, poverty, and childhood in the South Bronx, illustrated by children and families near and dear to Kozol's heart. The book, which is a compilation of about a dozen stories, each one focusing on a different child or family, but framed under the general narrative of the effect of poverty and racism on education, is typical of Kozol's style. His writing is clear and at times stark, free of flowery prose, incisive, and utterly effective. The journey starts out at the Martinique Hotel, a hotel in Midtown that used to house many homeless families before it was shut down in the eighties or nineties as a blight on the affluent City Proper. The early passages reminded me of a story I read in sixth grade that piqued my interest in child poverty in America: Monkey Island by Paula Fox, which made a tremendous impression on me as a child in a small, private school in the Chicago suburbs where I received quite a good education. At the time, I simply couldn't believe that children like Clay Garrity - fictional character that he was - existed in America. But there are many Clay Garritys in America, and Kozol introduces us to some that he knows quite well. Some of them have prevailed over the incredible odds stacked against them, and some some have not. Kozol doesn't mince words when he writes about the Martinique. Plagued by drug addicts, criminal activity, vermin, rape, violent and cruel management, and according to one occupant, tension so thick you could cut it with a knife, the Martinique is hell on earth. He writes of several similar tenements in the city, each with the same problems, used to house the most vulnerable among us, the ones in need of the most care, including many, many children. I cannot adequately describe the horrors there on my own, so I'll simply provide Kozol's words: I would later spend considerable time in a number of his buildings because so many of the children I was meeting in the Bronx were Mr. Schuster's tenants. There was one building in that complex that I got to know particularly well because I went there several times to interview the family of a child named Bernardo after he'd been killed by falling from an upper floor through an empty elevator shaft. The elevator door wasn't working properly and would open unpredictably even when there was no elevator there. The tenants had complained about the danger many times; but the company refused to make repairs. Bernardo's body landed on the steel roof of the elevator unit, which had stopped four floors beneat his own. He was not found until his blood began to drip on passengers. Mr. Schuster managed to clean up his image at a later time by making contributions to important Democratic politicians, some of them strong advocates for the very people he had treated with contempt and whose lives he had imperiled - Hillary Clinton, Richard Gephardt, and John Kerry, among others - or by giving parties to raise funds on their behalf, which won him a degree of prominence in Boston's social pages. Many of the families that Kozol writes about lived at the Martinique for several years before being given an apartment - which they had to accept no matter what the living conditions there were like - and moving out. The years at the Martinique affected these children tremendously, and early on Kozol notes a pattern when he explains that in two different families that had stayed at the Martinique, the older children had developed such harmful destructive tendencies that they had died very young, while the younger, more resilient (and at the time, more oblivious) siblings managed to pull through and survive. I won't ruin the narratives by attempting to give a succinct account of them in this review; I would do the stories of those families no justice that way. You simply must read the book itself, and be introduced to the families that way rather than through a casual review. And Kozol truly does introduce us to some spectacular characters, whose determination, ferocity, and even cheerfulness cause them to leap right off the page. Keep in mind that these characters are Black or Hispanic, with a couple exceptions. The reverend at Saint Anne's, for example, is a white woman named Martha who does her community in the South Bronx an incredible service, and seems to be Kozol's partner, a similar driving force, in this narrative. But the other characters are overwhelmingly minorities, and the race relations that sulk between the lines of Kozol's text should surprise no one. One woman we meet is Ariella, a mother of two young boys who is determined to give them the best she can, and she knows the key to a better life is a good education. Kozol writes of her activism efforts, Projects of this nature, and efforts to reach out to influential and supportive sectors in the mainstream of society, have come to be her dedication. She speaks from time to time at universities and colleges. "I spoke at New York University," she told me recently. "The students wanted to find out how anybody could survive on $16,000 in New York, even twenty years ago!" -- which she said "was not the subject I had planned to speak about." She holds her own effectively with people in the world of academia. "I don't need a Ph.D. to talk about the things I know. I'm not intimidated by professors when they question me. I can handle their linguistics and gymnastics." When they ask her "how to stop the violence" but, she says, "don't want to hear about the way they put our kids in neighborhoods that are most violent already - you know, 'put them in the fire, then tell them to stop burning' - I don't let them throw that at me. I know what an oxymoron is. I'm not afraid to answer. That passage made me love Ariella even more. This was a woman who became homeless with her two sons because she refused to stay with an alcoholic husband who beat her. Due to cancer, I believe, she couldn't work and had to apply for welfare when she left her husband. She fought tooth and nail to secure the best for her sons through education, and to help her community, and I loved and envied her strength and her clarity of purpose. But that passage about her standing up to professors who found it so easy to condescend to her about her experiences - I loved that most of all. That made me want to stand up and cheer. The image of a white professor trying to speak FOR people of color, or for those less advantaged, at the expense of their experiences, to interject with his own and erase their struggles and their experiences, is one I'm quite familiar with, and one that still makes me angry. I was so proud of Ariella for being unwilling to put up with that White Nonsense (TM). (White Nonsense refers to white people using ideas and notions of white supremacy to demonize or erase People of Color, or to erase or diminish their experiences and struggles. It's evil and pervasive and damaging to us all.) Alice, another strong woman we meet in this book, doesn't let Kozol off the hook with his White Nonsense, either. She was a politically sophisticated woman. When she came upon a story in one of the papers that offended her intelligence, she would cut it out and write her often pungent comments in the margins. Understatements and omissions in the daily press in stories on the homeless and places like the Martinique stirred up her indignation. The organized abuse of women in the building, she believed, would have made front page headlines in the press if those who were the victims were not overwhelmingly [B]lack and Latino. When I was initially reluctant to agree with her, she grew impatient and she said, "Come on! You know they wouldn't tolerate disgusting things like this for women like your mother or your sister!" It seems pertinent to mention here, for those who are unfamiliar with the man, that Kozol is Jewish, and a white man. (I do not use the word Caucasian, which is built on notions of Aryan superiority. I say 'white' people.) I couldn't agree more with Alice's remarks. Not only am I glad she 'grew impatient' and said those things to Kozol, but I'm also glad that he chose to recount those words in his book. That woman is absolutely right. Systemic, organized rape-for-protection of white women would NOT be tolerated, but is ignored and excused (by men who think like Kozol seems to have thought, that the race distinction just isn't there) when it happens to women of color. Because Black/Brown life is cheap, in a way that White life isn't. I know too well the meaning of those words - men, women and children from the country of my parents' births are dying daily in drone strikes. 90% of the victims of drone strikes in Pakistan are innocent civilians, per the Brookings Institute. White life is precious, Black/Brown life is cheap. This is a reality we face every day, but one that too many white people (seemingly, Kozol at one point included) ignore or try to ignore. When Alice would chide Kozol for his impatience with his mother's impatience with his near-senile father, she would remind him that his mother was elderly and they didn't have much time together, and he'd hate himself every time he remembered something unkind he said to her. Kozol writes, Friends can give advice like this, intending well but doing harm. Sometimes they don't realize that the kinds of words they use, and the tone that they assume, can be crippling to you; sometimes perhaps they do. Alice was different in this sense. She understood a lot about fragility in people that she cared for. Even when she grew impatient with mistakes she thought her friends were making, she never showed the slightest wish to demonstrate her competence at the cost of someone else's self-respect. This was one of the qualities in Alice for which, in time, I came to be the most grateful. Alice had quite a sense of humor, too. When commenting on a club employee's strike because they suddenly weren't being paid extra, like they used to, for cleaning the blood/vomit/excrement of party-goers at the Harvard Club on 44th in Manhattan, she said, "If people who went to Harvard can't control themselves and drink too much," she said, "I think they ought to be grown up enough to clean up their own vomit." She often spoke as if she was convinced that a persistent self-indulgent immaturity was one of the entitlements of privilege. She noted, for example, when erotic misbehavior by the very rich was granted absolution by the press that would not be given to the men and women in her neighborhood. "Another millionaire who didn't bother to get married had another baby," she reported to me once in speaking of a well-known real estate tycoon. "I notice that they never say rich children are born 'out of wedlock.' They never say these babies are 'one parent children.' If you're rich, you don't get judged the way poor people do." In more ways than one. I'm reminded of a political cartoon I see make the rounds every now and then - the gist being that if you're poor and found with drugs, you go to jail; if you're rich and found with drugs, you go to rehab. Another story from Alice struck me as especially poignant: Once, on a steamy Sunday afternoon, she showed me a story in the New York Times that said the heat had been especially uncomfortable for the carriage horses, which are popular with tourists in the midtown area. "It wasn't much of a week to be a horse . . .," the paper said. "People, at least, have air-conditioning and friends with pools." Her reaction to the glibness of this sentence was less bitter than resigned. "I guess that puts me with the horses," she said quietly." I found this book problematic because in several places - like where he disagreed with Alice about rape being more easily tolerated when WOC were victimized - Kozol showed his own naivete and the unique ignorance that comes with being a white person in regards to race relations (and I'm sure we can agree that when it comes to racial relations, Kozol is no slouch - that's why it's important to highlight that even if a white person really educates himself/herself in these matters, he or she will make mistakes). He speaks to a young Latina about Barack Obama being president, and probes about us edging closer to a post racial world because of him. Most of my fellow POC, that I know, would laugh themselves hoarse upon hearing this post racial White Nonsense. "Now we have a president-" but she cut me off- "who," she said, knowing right away where I must be heading, "happens to be [B]lack." "Doesn't that mean something might be going on?" Something in that "attitude of white superiority [that must be attacked]" she had just described? "Not really," she replied. "You don't think it means we're getting closer to a point where we can start to find solutions to at least a couple of the problems you described?" [Huma here: HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.] "Nope," she said. "Because that's not the reason we elected him. And if he did the things he should, a lot of people who elected him, from what I understand, wouldn't be behind him anymore. A lot of people aren't behind him even now, and he hasn't done a thing that I can see that will make a difference to poor children and the schools we have to go to and the places where they almost always put us, you know, in the neighborhoods, not just in New York . . ." Once she got her teeth into a big and meaty chunk of obvious injustice she'd experienced first hand, Pineapple clearly wasn't going to hold back. "President Obama didn't have to go to inner-city schools. You know? Where everyone is poor? And everyone's Hispanic or everybody's [B]lack? Why does he think it's good enough for other kids, like children in the Bronx?" This girl gets it. I'm glad she explained it to Kozol. "Post raciality" is a concept White (TM) people love. I use "White (TM)" to mean those people, who happen to be white, who diminish the effects of racism and/or think it is something that can be solved as if it were a simple problem, and not a pervasive social, political, cultural force that has persisted, violently, over centuries. White (TM) people love 'post racial' shit. They're the ones that say things like, "I see no color, we're all the human race!" That statement, of course, does nothing but diminish/erase the harmful effects of racism that POC suffer *daily.* It is not a helpful statement. No POC wants to hear that White Nonsense (TM). (Again, this does not refer to ALL white people. This refers to the douchebags who actually think this way.) I loved that Kozol chose to write about these little anecdotes in which POC schooled him, however gently, on the vast differences between the reality of a white man and a POC. (Person of Color, if you haven't picked up on the lingo yet.) Kozol's stories about these children and families he cares for deeply end with the story of his godson, a story I particularly recommend to readers. He saves it for the end, he says, because it's the hardest to write. Toward the end of the book, Kozol draws us out of the small world he created for us in the South Bronx, and forces us to confront the larger picture, especially in terms of our rhetoric. THe word "accountability" is very much in fashion now. Children in the inner cities, we are told, must be "held accountable" for their success or failure. But none of these children can be held accountable for choosing where they had been born or where they led their childhood. Nor can they be blamed for the historic failings of their schools. Nor, of course, are any of these children responsible in any way at all for the massive unemployment, and the flight of businesses and industries, that have put so many young men on corners of the streets with no useful purposes within their daily lives. ("Visitors," Martha told me at the time of the recession in 2001, "are asking if the economic crisis has taken a high toll on people in our parish. I tell them that we've always been in a depression in Mott Haven, so it's hard to see a difference.") This, of course, would be an excellent launch into a discussion of the GOP platform of seeking to ban abortion, even in the case of rape (per the 2012 platform), and then seeking to privatize (gut) Medicare and Social Security and all sorts of other programs for the poor. It would be quite pertinent to point out that the GOP doesn't give a shit about children unless they're unborn, in which case the GOP will fight to the death for those children to be born ... while Mitt Romney quietly makes a profit off aborted fetuses through Bain Capital. (Look up the Stericycle deal.) But I'm not going to go into that. (Any more than I already did.) The epilogue strikes the perfect note of weariness and optimism and, above all else, persistence and resilience. Kozol is talking to Pineapple (a pseudonym for one of the girls in his book) about his work. I explained that I was simply having trouble finishing my book. I said I wasn't sure how much had changed back in the neighborhood where she and I had met, but I told her I kept going back and forth on this, because I didn't want to end up on a dreary note. "Jonathan," she said, "I want you to think positive. Lara and I are going to go back and help to change things once we both have our degrees. You know? Make little changes that we can? If lots of people do that, then the changes won't be little anymore." I said, "I'm going to steal those words." "Do it!" she said." And she asked if I remembered something that I told her once when we were walking by the water near her parents' home. "You know? Picking battles that we have a chance to win? And not getting frozen up and flustered in your mind by things that are too big for you and me to change, not at least for now. Which isn't any use to anyone at all." I said, "I think I'll steal those words as well." "Do it!" she said a second time. "You're the one who said that to me anyway. I'll give it back to you for free." A riveting, compelling story, clearly written and effectively told. Don't ever expect anything less from Jonathan Kozol. Note: Kozol mentions a discretionary fund, comprised of donations from readers, that he uses to help the children in this book and many others with things they need. Sometimes this is for health insurance when a child develops a serious illness and needs to wait a semester before going back on a college's health plan. Sometimes it's for food. Sometimes it's for clothes that actually fit. If you'd like to learn more about the fund or help sustain it, contact the Education Action Fund, 16 Lowell Street, Cambridge MA 02138, or email [email protected]

  8. 5 out of 5

    Melanie Page

    I've read a selection from Kozol's book The Shame of the Nation in an ENGL 101 anthology from which I teach. It's a powerful excerpt, so I figured that since I've been tasked with teaching a new class fall 2016, ENGL 100, I would do a couple of non-fiction journalism/essay-type books to get my students reading more and engaged with big topics. Fire in the Ashes was the best book I found to really jump into Kozol's work. It covers from 1985 to 2012. Kozol follows and does his best to keep in conta I've read a selection from Kozol's book The Shame of the Nation in an ENGL 101 anthology from which I teach. It's a powerful excerpt, so I figured that since I've been tasked with teaching a new class fall 2016, ENGL 100, I would do a couple of non-fiction journalism/essay-type books to get my students reading more and engaged with big topics. Fire in the Ashes was the best book I found to really jump into Kozol's work. It covers from 1985 to 2012. Kozol follows and does his best to keep in contact with families that often started in what sounds like the world's worst building, located across the street from Macy's and a block over from 5th Ave in New York City. To my knowledge, homeless families were stuck in these buildings that were owned by the most awful of slumlords, who would encourage women to have sex with the guards (or him) for protection. Children missed school, were exposed to drugs, were robbed or shot at, and played in garbage. Most families were then placed in homes in the Bronx, where things were no better. The first section of Kozol's book describes families with a child who did not make it -- stories that ended in death. Just when you think the whole book is going to cripple your nerves from guilt and shame and sorrow, section two tells the stories of children who did become successful. Fire in the Ashes humanizes the homeless and the poverty and laughable excuse for schools that people endured after they were placed in permanent homes. One story that touched me in particular was when a woman described how she would know when she was happy again:"I pray," she said, "for something that I haven't done in thirteen years." [Kozol] asked her what it was. "To pick up my knitting needles," she replied. A soft smile lighted up her eyes. "I used to make a sweater in three weeks if I had nothin' to upset me. I'd start when it was summertime and I'd have six sweaters made for Christmas . . . If you ever see me get my needles out again, you'll know I'm feelin' happy."Another story that stood out was of a man named Pietro who recognized the squalor of the building in which the homeless were stashed. It cost so little to have that he kept a duck in the room in which he and his children lived."I know," he said, "it seems a little crazy for us to keep a duck in the apartment. But the children love him, and the neighborhood is so depressing and they have so little. I just want them to remember that they're children. . . ."Pietro works hard to keep in contact with Kozol. The author loses track of many families and individuals because it is common for the homeless or those living in extreme poverty, like the families he grew to know, to move frequently or have their phones turned off. Therefore, it's on the part of the individuals to keep in contact with Kozol. Pietro was one of those people. Kozol describes how Pietro's letters "began, typically, on a long and crowded page, would continue on another page if he had another piece of paper, and then on smaller scraps of paper or the backs of envelopes or whatever other bits of paper he might have." It really hit me: though I'd read about the bullets and gangs and drugs and rape and children being robbed for their food at knife point, it was when Pietro never had more than 1-2 pieces of paper that I realized just how poor poor can get (most likely because I relate to paper and can't fathom the rampant violence). Fire in the Ashes was the perfect read to follow Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed. While Ehrenreich mentions housing issues and her co-workers struggling to keep their families together, I didn't get the full feel of it. Kozol fills in this other part of the working poors' lives, and together, the experience was hard-hitting. I'm pretty excited to teach both books this coming fall!

  9. 4 out of 5

    Barbara

    I often like to read the books written by social activists Jonathan Kozol at the start of a new school year--partly for inspiration, partly to remind me why I am so dedicated to the teaching profession, and partly to marvel at how lucky I have been. This book has been waiting on one of my side tables for several months now. I don't know what kept me from reading it--maybe fear that he'd return to the children to which he had introduced his readers in earlier books and find that there were few su I often like to read the books written by social activists Jonathan Kozol at the start of a new school year--partly for inspiration, partly to remind me why I am so dedicated to the teaching profession, and partly to marvel at how lucky I have been. This book has been waiting on one of my side tables for several months now. I don't know what kept me from reading it--maybe fear that he'd return to the children to which he had introduced his readers in earlier books and find that there were few success stories, maybe because I had a lot of other material to read. But I'm glad I finally got around to this book, the title of which should have reminded me that there is hope. While many of the stories he shares do not have happy endings, and prompt anger at a system that seems to have little regard for the poor while also evoking sadness over some of the choices made by children and their parents, he also tells stories that describe how some of the children living in the Bronx made it through college, and how some of their successes in all other ways--some being successful simply through surviving and managing to retain their human-ness and their kindness. Throughout each story there are common themes involving family and the nurturing of other adults, the disparity among schools and educational experiences, the grindingly bleak daily existence that must be eked out when one's home or living conditions offer no sanctuary. Over and over, on every page in this book, in every book that he writes, Kozol reminds his readers that something must change. While I closed the book with feelings of hope that each of us can make small changes, I also wondered at the size of the task that lies ahead and how so many incompetent teachers can be allowed to fill school buildings and so many politicians or slumlords be allowed to do as they please. When and how will this change? Although Kozol lovingly describes many of his interactions with the families he met decades ago and still knows, I wonder what the cost to him has been. As he always does, he has left me with questions and a need to search my own heart about these issues.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Louise

    In this book you see the tremendous amount of caring, cost and nurturing it takes to help a child who has lived in and around trauma acquire the skills to leave poverty behind. The children profiled in this book have seen family members and neighbors die through violence, drugs and suicide. They have been hungry and bullied by others suffering the same social conditions. They have loyalty to family, guilt for having opportunities. Some waver between confidence and doubt. I would imagine their li In this book you see the tremendous amount of caring, cost and nurturing it takes to help a child who has lived in and around trauma acquire the skills to leave poverty behind. The children profiled in this book have seen family members and neighbors die through violence, drugs and suicide. They have been hungry and bullied by others suffering the same social conditions. They have loyalty to family, guilt for having opportunities. Some waver between confidence and doubt. I would imagine their lives are more lonely than they let on. Each of these is a story of hope, but each of these is an exception. How many scholarships to boarding schools are there? How many homes are there like Marta's that have the patience to endure betrayals of a child in need like Benjamin? There was a time when a Kozol book was a best seller upon publication. There was once more interest in the education of poor children; there was concern about the plight of the poor in general. Today, not so much. Those who once had the shelter of "Welfare Hotels" are now homeless and very little political or press time is devoted to their plight. Jonathan Kozol and Robert Coles have spent their lives helping children in need. Their direct help to children has been supplemented by their books which have inspired others to take on this challenge. Kozol and Coles won't be with us forever. I hope some young people, perhaps some such as those covered in this book, will rise to carry the torch of this mission and bring more attention the needs of poor children.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Sally

    The author looks back on several of the children and adults he has known for many years in the South Bronx, people who are usually denigrated or demonized when not ignored entirely. His gift, as always, is in making plain the full humanity and worth of marginalized people, people who have become his friends but whom he never sentimentalizes. In many ways it is a meditation on what allows some children to escape their poverty-stricken, violent neighborhood, while others self-destruct even when gi The author looks back on several of the children and adults he has known for many years in the South Bronx, people who are usually denigrated or demonized when not ignored entirely. His gift, as always, is in making plain the full humanity and worth of marginalized people, people who have become his friends but whom he never sentimentalizes. In many ways it is a meditation on what allows some children to escape their poverty-stricken, violent neighborhood, while others self-destruct even when given opportunities. In this sample, the young men seem more inwardly fragile and less able to recover from psychological damage and a toxic environment than the young women, more apt to retreat into a hardened self-centeredness devoid of empathy even for their families and/or a cycle of self-destructiveness. Black, brown, and white boys are examples in this category; race is not the issue. The bottom line, however, is: no one gets out without intervention and a lot of help from people who don't live in the neighborhood, whether teachers, pastors, or people involved in charities. And even with help and positive family realtionships, the children are so far behind academically by the time they finish elementary school (let alone the higher grades) and so psychologically effected by their surroundings that they must really struggle to succeed no matter how bright and determined they are. The larger point is that none of the children in that neighborhood or any other deserve to live under such conditions.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Toni

    I'm something of a sociology buff. I enjoy hearing about other people's lives, journeys, struggles, etc., without being bombarded with statistics and studies. Jonathan Kozol is a great chronicler of the lives of impoverished children as evidenced in his bestselling book, Savage Inequalities. Kozol spent time in a neighborhood in the Bronx, known to be one of the poorest urban areas in the country. He came to know several families, most who were relocated there after the closing of several "hotels I'm something of a sociology buff. I enjoy hearing about other people's lives, journeys, struggles, etc., without being bombarded with statistics and studies. Jonathan Kozol is a great chronicler of the lives of impoverished children as evidenced in his bestselling book, Savage Inequalities. Kozol spent time in a neighborhood in the Bronx, known to be one of the poorest urban areas in the country. He came to know several families, most who were relocated there after the closing of several "hotels" that housed the homeless in Manhattan. He tells their stories while also educating us on the cultural, social, economic, and political reasons behind the circumstances they find themselves in. Yes, these mainly Black and Latino children have been "left behind" by most of society, there are some happy endings. A couple are able to escape geographically. A few are able to escape educationally. The best thing about Kozol's books is that he isn't just an impartial observer. He does his best to help those who need and want it and has even set up a foundation to help the families in his books. I recommend Fire In The Ashes to anyone with an interest in education and the plight of poor children in this country.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Valentina

    This was a fascinating account of disfranchised kids living in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the United States. It is a heartbreaking and eye-opening view of the lives that are affected by the lack of care the government provides them. The author first met most of these children twenty-five years ago, and he begins his accounts at the moment of the first meeting, continuing on until adulthood. He focuses first on the children who weren’t able to succeed, to get past the deficiencies they ha This was a fascinating account of disfranchised kids living in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the United States. It is a heartbreaking and eye-opening view of the lives that are affected by the lack of care the government provides them. The author first met most of these children twenty-five years ago, and he begins his accounts at the moment of the first meeting, continuing on until adulthood. He focuses first on the children who weren’t able to succeed, to get past the deficiencies they had to put up with as they grew: horrific government housing, being placed in neighborhoods which are full of violence and drugs, and deplorable schools who sometimes didn’t even have textbooks for all their classes. This book throws a light on all these things that we might otherwise not know about, because it is not necessarily public knowledge. His writing is clear, straight to the point, but full of heart. We can tell how much he cares for these children who he’s followed for twenty-five years. This is definitely a book to read. Many parts are tough to get through because of the topic. It can be harsh sometimes, thinking of children living in these conditions, but it has to be read. If we don’t know the truth, then there’s no hope of it every changing.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Matt

    Americans love the idea of people born in humble circumstances pulling themselves up through hard work and tyranny of will. I give Fire in the Ashes five stars because, more than anything else I've read, it gave me a sense of just how much has to go right in the lives of the very poor for them to pull it off. Kozol shares a handful of vignettes on the lives of kids he worked with who grew up in a poor neighborhood in New York and managed to elevate their personal circumstances. Throughout the na Americans love the idea of people born in humble circumstances pulling themselves up through hard work and tyranny of will. I give Fire in the Ashes five stars because, more than anything else I've read, it gave me a sense of just how much has to go right in the lives of the very poor for them to pull it off. Kozol shares a handful of vignettes on the lives of kids he worked with who grew up in a poor neighborhood in New York and managed to elevate their personal circumstances. Throughout the narrative you meet siblings or friends who weren't so fortunate. Our society has done a good job of creating the conditions required to make this kind of storyline possible (i.e. the poverty), but not such a good job of creating the conditions for making these stories probable. In almost all of the stories, these kids succeeded because of the personal intervention of someone who was engaged in the kids' lives who weren't getting paid for it.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Jenna

    Had to create a new shelf for this one --- "too awful to finish". It sounds very interesting and I thought I would love it.... and it just might be a good book, BUT I cannot stand the author's writing. I'm not even sure how to describe it or exactly what irritates me so much.... he's too perky, he uses far too many quotes with little actual description of things. That's part of it. I only read 2 chapters and was dreading reading the entire thing. Thus, it is a huge relief-- even if it comes with Had to create a new shelf for this one --- "too awful to finish". It sounds very interesting and I thought I would love it.... and it just might be a good book, BUT I cannot stand the author's writing. I'm not even sure how to describe it or exactly what irritates me so much.... he's too perky, he uses far too many quotes with little actual description of things. That's part of it. I only read 2 chapters and was dreading reading the entire thing. Thus, it is a huge relief-- even if it comes with immense guilt!-- to say "I quit" and chuck this onto the newly-minted Too Awful to Finish shelf.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Edward Sullivan

    This book will be most appreciated by readers familiar with Kozol's other works, particularly titles relating to the children and families he has come to know at St. Ann's. Twenty-five years after beginning to follow the lives of these impoverished children, the author offers updated findings. He concludes that the children who have done well as adults have had something special: someone who intervened in their lives. Powerful and moving.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Dolly

    This story chronicles the lives of those families who lived in poverty in or near the Martinique, a building in the South area of the Bronx borough in New York City. It was a former hotel, once heralded for its splendor and design, but later used by the city as a short-term shelter for families on public aid. The squalor of the hotel and the dangers of lead paint and other toxic pollutants that families were exposed to were horrific. And if that weren't bad enough the gangs, drug dealers, and ot This story chronicles the lives of those families who lived in poverty in or near the Martinique, a building in the South area of the Bronx borough in New York City. It was a former hotel, once heralded for its splendor and design, but later used by the city as a short-term shelter for families on public aid. The squalor of the hotel and the dangers of lead paint and other toxic pollutants that families were exposed to were horrific. And if that weren't bad enough the gangs, drug dealers, and other criminal threats around every corner were sure to put children at a high risk for dropping out of school, becoming incarcerated, or even for being killed. During a period of time in the 1980s and 90s, the author met with different families during their stay there or during their visits to a local church, St. Ann's. The author worked with other dedicated people and organizations to try to make a difference in the lives of the families with whom he maintained contact. He got to know of them, sometimes gave them money from his foundation, put them in touch with other organizations which could help them, and followed the paths their lives led over the course of the next decades. Some of the stories are inspiring, some are humorous, but many are heartbreaking. I may not have come from a wealthy background, but the opportunities and 'white privilege' that I have taken for granted all of my life would likely have made a huge difference in the lives of the children in this book as well. But most of the people in this book suffered from the blatant discrimination, lack of resources and trained educators, and political disinterest that people in this socioeconomic strata experience, even today. interesting quotes (page numbers from paperback edition with ISBN13 978-1400052479): "I cited Mario Cuomo, the former New York governor, who came away with horror from a visit to the Martinique, and likened it to 'a scene out of Dickens.'" (p. 63) "I find I like to talk with her as often as I can. It feels to me as if I'm standing with her on a very solid piece of ground, after a tornado's passed. Strength, it seems, in somebody who had a lot of courage to begin with, can, at last, renew itself." (p. 106) "The organized abuse of women in the building, she believed, would have made front page headlines in the press, if those who were the victims were not overwhelmingly Black and Latino" (p. 110) "Alice was a good 'decoder' of the words and subtle biases and innuendos in news stories. It was she who pointed out to me, for instance, that the papers were referring to the presence of so many homeless people in this section of Manhattan as essentially a sanitation problem. Plumbing imagery was being used in speaking of a 'backup' in the homeless population, which had caused the 'overflow' to spill in to the old hotels around Times Square." (p. 110) "She empathized with those who were true victims but, in her own case, she rejected victimhood. The details of life and the amusement that she took in dwelling on those details, toying with those details, were her weaponry of choice against the many difficulties that she had to face. New York was a bitter place for women of her class and color in those days, but she did not reciprocate that bitterness. She rose above the meanness that surrounded her. She punched holes in that meanness with her cleverness and wit and with her eye for the preposterous. She laughed a lot. She loved her lamb chops and her baked potato. In the details, she transcended." (p. 139) "Hearing the indignation in her voice, I was reminded of other students I had known, black and Latino students mostly, but conscientious young white people, too, who became so wrathful or seemed to be so overwhelmed by the sheer dimensions of the problems they perceived that they tended to give up on many good and useful things that could have done right here and now within the social system as it stands. I recalled a piece of practical advice, an helpful exhortation I'd heard from someone older than myself some years before: Look for battles big enough to matter, but at the same time, small enough to win some realistic victories." (p. 204) "'He has a gift for giving comfort to these people. Some of them are elderly,' she said. 'Sometimes he does this on his own, going back to talk with them or read to them or pray with them or simply bring whatever peace and kindness he can into their final days. It's not perfunctory for Jeremy; it comes right from his heart and soul. I know that they look forward to his visits." (p. 255) "'You know,' he said. 'I still have that feeling about teaching. It hasn't gone away. But maybe, there are other ways of teaching than the one that takes place in a school.'" (p. 256) "And he said: A goal should not be seen as something separate from the journey that a person takes to get there. Not the place, but the path. Not the goal, but the way. That's how I remember it. I still believe the journey is ahead of me." (p. 258) "The principal listened to him carefully. When he was finished, the principal, who was an Hispanic man and told us he had grown up in New York, talked to Angelo about his own unhappy years while he was in secondary school. He told him that he had been a high school dropout and that it was several years before he found the motivation to return to school. When he got to college, he resolved to find a way to be of help to other kids who were going through the kinds of troubles he himself had known. 'This,' he said, 'was why he had decided to become a teacher. Later,' he explained to Angelo, 'he received a graduate degree that qualified him to become a principal.'" (p. 267) "The years in middle school for too many children in the Bronx, as in other troubled sections of New York, have proven to be killing fields in academic terms, as well as psychologically and socially. Thousands of students in other cities, too, even when their elementary schooling has been relatively good, come out of their middle schools and go on to high school with severe impairment of their basic skills. Whatever assets they've acquired in the elementary years seem to be transmuted into deficits by the time they enter the ninth grade." (p. 268) "But success, an arbitrary term at best, takes a wide variety of forms, some of which do not glow so visibly. Angelo did not have the opportunities that Jeremy and Pineapple received. He never had the conversational exposure to history, to books, to questions about ethics and to challenging ideas that Jeremy was given by the pastor and the poet and his other mentors. Nor did he have the very strong parental backing that Pineapple knew she could depend on. His father, it will be recalled, had been in prison from the time when Angelo was born. His mother, kindly woman that she is, did not have the temperament or determination to oversee his education and could not help him to control the furious defensiveness that erupted in him in his adolescent years. But seven sessions in the Tombs and four months at Riker's Island have not destroyed the qualities of decency and earnestness and persistent innocence, that 'real light in his eyes' that Mr. Rogers noted when he took the photograph of Angelo that now hangs here on my wall. He isn't slick, he isn't glib, he isn't cruel, he isn't mean. He's a kind and loving human being, which is not the case with many of the more sophisticated people that I know, that have been to college or have multiple degrees. To me, those qualities of elemental goodness in his soul matter more than anything." (p. 282) "If any lesson may be learned from the academic breakthroughs achieved by Pineapple and Jeremy, it is not that we should celebrate exceptionality of opportunity but that the public schools themselves in neighborhoods of widespread destitution ought to have the rich resources, small classes, and well-prepared and well-rewarded teachers that would enable us to give to every child the feast of learning that is now available to children of the poor only on the basis of a careful selectivity or by catching the attention of empathetic people like the pastor of a church or another grown-up whom they meet by chance. Charity and chance and narrow selectivity are not the way to educate children of a genuine democracy." (p. 304)

  18. 4 out of 5

    Holly Morrow

    Jonathan Kozol is an activist on issues surrounding poverty and education in urban America. I first heard of him because my best friend joined Teach for America after being inspired by his book Savage Inequalities. I have not read his earlier books (there are 5 I believe), but think they were more focused on issues surrounding public education – data, policy, etc. This book is more personal; almost a retrospective – he looks back on families he has written about and spent time with over many yea Jonathan Kozol is an activist on issues surrounding poverty and education in urban America. I first heard of him because my best friend joined Teach for America after being inspired by his book Savage Inequalities. I have not read his earlier books (there are 5 I believe), but think they were more focused on issues surrounding public education – data, policy, etc. This book is more personal; almost a retrospective – he looks back on families he has written about and spent time with over many years and talks about how the children have fared. A number of these families he met when they were in an infamous hotel-turned-homeless-shelter called the Martinique in Manhattan – a Lord of the Flies kind of place which might be the worst possible situation in which to raise children (a girl raped in the stairwell, addicts shooting up in the hallway). New York City finally shut the Martinique down, and moved the families to housing projects, mostly in the South Bronx. Kozol follows these families as they make the transition and as the parents struggle to keep their heads above water and shield their children from the influences around them. Single mothers, fathers, and married couples who are trying to do what all parents want to do – raise healthy, happy, contributing adults. The fact that he chooses families headed by relatively high-functioning adults actually makes the stories even more heartbreaking – because even with effort and good intention, the obstacles in front of these children are almost insurmountable, and many of them don’t make it. Many come from bad family situations (e.g. a father in prison); are “educated” in chaotic, failing schools; violence and chronic stresses are everpresent in their peripheral view even if theyre not directly involved; there are virtually no legitimate employment opportunities in their neighborhoods; and a plethora of seductive bad examples beckon them. While Kozol is not preachy (if anything his tone is avuncular), he has occasional flashes of anger not only at the injustice that children are born into these circumstances by no fault of their own, but also that if they fail to overcome them, they are often blamed for it and called lazy, stupid, bad. How do you really say that children who grow up in these circumstances have the same opportunity as, say, me? Ive worked hard in my life, but for me as a young person succeeding meant not pissing away the opportunities that were laid before me (many of which I did!); staying on the right path was a fairly passive endeavor, allowing the current to move me downstream. Succeeding for these kids means constantly, constantly fighting upstream. I can't say its an uplifting read (although Kozol describes many local heroes – a pastor, great teachers, and other mentors), but it’s a good antidote to the stupid, ruthless Ayn Randism that pretends that we all line up equally equipped at the same starting line and its only character and work ethic that determines who wins the race.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Karen

    I've been wanting to read Kozol for a long time, but was intimidated for some reason...I think I thought Savage Inequalities might be a dense, academic, footnote-ridden tome that would improve me but not be too enjoyable in the reading. I grabbed Fire in the Ashes as an ARC at ALA last summer, and just pulled it off my shelf in between novels. It's a slightly odd place to start reading Kozol, since it's a retrospective on his lifetime of work and the relationships he's developed over the course I've been wanting to read Kozol for a long time, but was intimidated for some reason...I think I thought Savage Inequalities might be a dense, academic, footnote-ridden tome that would improve me but not be too enjoyable in the reading. I grabbed Fire in the Ashes as an ARC at ALA last summer, and just pulled it off my shelf in between novels. It's a slightly odd place to start reading Kozol, since it's a retrospective on his lifetime of work and the relationships he's developed over the course of it--but it's anything but dry and dense. Kozol comes across in his writing as a deeply thoughtful and sensitive person, someone who sees misery and injustice and doesn't turn away. That's a rare enough trait--but he's also spent his life trying to do something to improve the lives of people he sees suffering, and to change the larger systems that create the conditions of their unhappiness. His Wikipedia article really sums it up. He's a really remarkable person. In this book, it's also clear that Kozol has shared his own life with the people whose lives he describes--that they know about his own family troubles and worries, and that he sees them socially and enjoys their company. Kozol comes across less as a researcher and more as a community minister, minus the actual religious infrastructure. Which is an awkward way of saying that he shares human relationships with the people he writes about, and that he engages in their lives and tries to help them--and accepts their advice and generosity when they offer it to him in return. Kozol's writing is relatively formal but never austere. He's scrupulously fair in reporting both the ways that politics and economy unfairly burden poor people, and also the times when they bear some responsibility for their situation. He's compassionate and insightful, but never sentimental or apologistic. Is this a hopeful book? I'm not sure. Certainly Kozol doesn't finish up by saying that the problems of inner-city poverty and institutionalized racism are all wrapped up. He seems to struggle with a appropriate ending for the book, given that he tells stories of people who have both pulled themselves out of poverty and those who have sunk under its weight. In the end, he lets one of his subjects speak for herself, in her own energetic and optimistic voice.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Kelly Robinson

    I first read Kozol’s work Amazing Grace as a college prerequisite. Amazingly, despite much consternation over having to read something so depressing over summer break, I came to see the importance of his heartbreaking chronicles of the poor and disenfranchised living in the South Bronx. While Savage Inequalities remains my favorite Kozol work, one which prompted me to a career in education, I never stopped wondering about the people in Mott Haven that I learned about in Kozol’s Amazing Grace. No I first read Kozol’s work Amazing Grace as a college prerequisite. Amazingly, despite much consternation over having to read something so depressing over summer break, I came to see the importance of his heartbreaking chronicles of the poor and disenfranchised living in the South Bronx. While Savage Inequalities remains my favorite Kozol work, one which prompted me to a career in education, I never stopped wondering about the people in Mott Haven that I learned about in Kozol’s Amazing Grace. Now, 15 years later Kozol has given the reader an update about some of the families from Mott Haven in Fire in the Ashes. Kozol doesn’t sugar coat anything – he chronicles a reality where people are living in extreme poverty and at least 75 percent of young African American men do not graduate from high school. Although the majority of people he chronicles did not overcome the tremendous obstacles against them, Kozol offers a glimmer of hope in that several children who received help from outside forces did survive, and triumph. For anyone interested in education, human interest, and a little discussed part of America, I highly recommend Fire in the Ashes. Just be prepared for a book that does exact a lot of emotion - anger, sadness, and even elation. Even if you have not read Kozol’s earlier works (which I recommend you do if you enjoy this book) Kozol does a fantastic job of giving the back-story behind the families he chronicles. I also find that even though many of this book's themes - poverty, education, and violence - are issues easily politicized, Kozol really leaves the decisions as to what needs to occur to help solve these problems up to the reader. Kozol does present his own view that vast systematic changes are needed to help those he chronicles, but really does not present a definitive political agenda, which I feel makes his books more introspective and gives them wider appeal.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Kelly Hager

    I first read Jonathan Kozol when I was in college. I minored in sociology and in one of my classes, we read his book Savage Inequalities, which is about the worst school systems in the country. I don't necessarily mean "worst" in terms of students there or teachers and staff. These schools were basically in the poorest sections of various towns. The one that stuck with me in the almost 10 years since I took the class is the one where the roof was in such bad shape that there would be a waterfall I first read Jonathan Kozol when I was in college. I minored in sociology and in one of my classes, we read his book Savage Inequalities, which is about the worst school systems in the country. I don't necessarily mean "worst" in terms of students there or teachers and staff. These schools were basically in the poorest sections of various towns. The one that stuck with me in the almost 10 years since I took the class is the one where the roof was in such bad shape that there would be a waterfall when it rained. A literal waterfall, not a few leaks. This book is basically a followup to two earlier books (Rachel and Her Children and Amazing Grace) and shows what's happened to some of the children in those books. (Note: you don't need to have read those books to read this one---he discusses backstory for each child featured.) Some of the children have gone on to college and are leading productive lives. And some are dead. This book broke my heart and made me furious. We have this belief in this country---some of us, anyway---where poor people are poor because they deserve to be---because they don't wark hard, for example, or (related) because they'd rather be on welfare and have babies than work or because they didn't go to college and so can only have a few career options (generally low-paying ones). But here's the thing: if you are born into a family with poor parents, it is so much harder for you to get out of that cycle of poverty. It's harder to attend a good school, which makes it harder to get into a good college (if you can even afford to go), which makes it harder to get a good job. And then all you hear is that your life is your fault, generally espoused by people who say that they worked hard to get where they are, but who have a billion advantages that you don't have. Highly recommended.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Jenny GB

    Jonathan Kozol takes a look back at the lives of children he has known for years that either successfully pulled themselves out of the hardships surrounding them or succumbed to the forces beyond their control. He provides commentary on people who just could not shake the addictions, anger, and depressions of their life of poverty and failed to overcome it. For some reason, he noted that women have more resilience than men although he doesn't offer an explanation of why. Then he shares the happy Jonathan Kozol takes a look back at the lives of children he has known for years that either successfully pulled themselves out of the hardships surrounding them or succumbed to the forces beyond their control. He provides commentary on people who just could not shake the addictions, anger, and depressions of their life of poverty and failed to overcome it. For some reason, he noted that women have more resilience than men although he doesn't offer an explanation of why. Then he shares the happy successes of many of the more famous children from his previous books. He emphasizes that their success was not possible without the support of people inside or outside the community that were committed to providing these people with a great education and taking them away from their war zone of a neighborhood. They required many years of patience and, in more cases, superior education. Also, the children that were successful were clearly motivated internally to achieve their goals. Not only education, but also strong ties to family sometimes brought about the resurrection from their unsavory pasts. It was a great idea to follow some students all the way through their childhood and into adulthood to show the full scope of the tragedy that poverty and poor schooling wrecks on some lives, while at the same time giving some hints as to ways that some students overcame it. Hearing the children mature and share their own words and dreams was quite inspirational, but it also inflicts a sense of guilt for all the other students that could have become this if they were only given the opportunity to grow and learn. Kozol, as always, write with conviction and sympathy. You can tell that he loves the people he speaks about in his books and he is a powerful advocate for them. I cannot imagine educational literature in these times without his voice.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Dan Schiff

    Another reviewer picked up on the same passage near the end of the book that I wanted to highlight: "Charity and chance and narrow selectivity are not the way to educate the children of a genuine democracy." Anyone who would dare to paint the poorest Americans with a broad brush -- as lulled into complacency and laziness by the welfare system, for example -- needs to read Kozol's books. There are children in Fire in the Ashes who make it out of the South Bronx and go to college, and there are oth Another reviewer picked up on the same passage near the end of the book that I wanted to highlight: "Charity and chance and narrow selectivity are not the way to educate the children of a genuine democracy." Anyone who would dare to paint the poorest Americans with a broad brush -- as lulled into complacency and laziness by the welfare system, for example -- needs to read Kozol's books. There are children in Fire in the Ashes who make it out of the South Bronx and go to college, and there are other children in the book who don't make it out of their teens. Many of them benefit from Kozol's intervention in their lives, while others ultimately do not. One of the most affecting accounts concerns a family given the opportunity to leave New York and move to a small town in Montana, thanks to the generosity of a church congregation. It's a scenario that Kozol says reeks of paternalism to some, but initially it seems to work. However, two of the three family members were already set on a course of self-destruction that no change of scenery, and perhaps nothing, could have prevented. Kozol's implicit message is, whether or not these people are victims of their own personal weaknesses, in an environment of extreme poverty, crime, violence and crumbling schools, lives have little room for error. And when a child is exposed to conditions of despair from an early age, there may be no reversing that damage. Kozol is not an especially efficient writer and his prose is often clumsy. But the substance of his words matters most, and he knows his job is merely to serve as a conduit for the voices of his subjects. Kozol's selflessness and patience with these people, marginalized by a society obsessed with the "middle class", is a service to all of us.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Andrew

    A One-Minute Review “Twenty-five years among the poorest children in America” is the subtitle and excellent description of Fire in the Ashes, an exposé about America’s impoverished children by writer and activist Jonathan Kozol. After a lifetime of working with children from America’s poorest neighbourhoods, Kozol returns to New York City to reconnect with those he met years ago. The haven of St. Ann’s Episcopal Church and The Martinique, an infamous welfare hotel, are the geographic poles around A One-Minute Review “Twenty-five years among the poorest children in America” is the subtitle and excellent description of Fire in the Ashes, an exposé about America’s impoverished children by writer and activist Jonathan Kozol. After a lifetime of working with children from America’s poorest neighbourhoods, Kozol returns to New York City to reconnect with those he met years ago. The haven of St. Ann’s Episcopal Church and The Martinique, an infamous welfare hotel, are the geographic poles around which many of these lives revolve. Between these places, Kozol tells stories of children who made it and children who didn’t; of families that survived and families that cracked; of children like Pineapple and Silvio growing up in the poorest districts of the world’s richest nation. Kozol’s writing reveals to the reader the intertwined dignity and desperation that describe the survival of children who both break your heart and rekindle hope. In a year where the passionate investigative writing of Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers and Blaine Harden’s Escape from Camp 14 highlighted poverty abroad, Fire in the Ashes reminds us that it exists at home in equal measure.

  25. 5 out of 5

    WTF Are You Reading?

    The growing under-class of disenfranchised poor has long been a hidden bruise on the face of America of which few have dared to speak. Fire In the Ashes dares not only to give voice to a few such people, but to allow an entire generation to tell its stories. This book is a look into the long term effects of poverty, neglect, and social ambivalence on a people, and the ways in which they have overcome or been overcome by their circumstances. When reading this book it becomes glaringly apparent tha The growing under-class of disenfranchised poor has long been a hidden bruise on the face of America of which few have dared to speak. Fire In the Ashes dares not only to give voice to a few such people, but to allow an entire generation to tell its stories. This book is a look into the long term effects of poverty, neglect, and social ambivalence on a people, and the ways in which they have overcome or been overcome by their circumstances. When reading this book it becomes glaringly apparent that though the stories found here are heartbreaking and often tragic, the people are not. They are prime examples of spirits which fight with all that they have not to be broken. They want better for themselves, their children, their community, and the world at large. They do not tell their stories to garner pity or charity from the audience; they simply are trying to be heard, not as a sound bite on the local news, but as people, strong, dignified, indomitable, and deserving of greatness. WTF Are You Reading? For reviews, giveaways and more...

  26. 4 out of 5

    Linda

    This book made me angry and yet sad at the same time. I feel like we are leaving whole segments of our country behind and it feels as though we are doing it deliberately. These people don't matter because they are brown and black or ethnic and are not somehow deserving of the same benefits as the whites that live in areas just around the corner from the areas the children in this book lived. The schools are awful, the housing substandard and yet HUD does nothing. Society looks down on people who This book made me angry and yet sad at the same time. I feel like we are leaving whole segments of our country behind and it feels as though we are doing it deliberately. These people don't matter because they are brown and black or ethnic and are not somehow deserving of the same benefits as the whites that live in areas just around the corner from the areas the children in this book lived. The schools are awful, the housing substandard and yet HUD does nothing. Society looks down on people who live in these so called "ghettos" but does everything it can to make sure people who are born there have no chance at all to get out and make something of themselves. When you treat people like shit,surround them with shit,toxins and violence and do everything in your power to keep them down how to you expect them to achieve even the smallest things. How do you expect them to hold their heads up with pride about who they are and where they come from. I admire Jonathan Kozol for telling these stories and letting people know these children are out there.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Ashley Szofer

    Jonathan Kozol is the inspiration behind many of my career aspirations. Because of deep, sensitive work like his, I find it impossible to turn a blind eye to the injustices in place for those who weren't as fortunate as I was in terms of the birth lottery. I could not put this book down and find myself just truly rooting for the people that Kozol has come to be so close with and feel more driven than ever to make a difference for the young individuals in our nation who deserve a fighting chance Jonathan Kozol is the inspiration behind many of my career aspirations. Because of deep, sensitive work like his, I find it impossible to turn a blind eye to the injustices in place for those who weren't as fortunate as I was in terms of the birth lottery. I could not put this book down and find myself just truly rooting for the people that Kozol has come to be so close with and feel more driven than ever to make a difference for the young individuals in our nation who deserve a fighting chance at success in what we call the land of opportunity. I cannot wait to pursue graduate work in the field of education policy and to get started on making a difference. Every little bit helps and because of it, everyone should have to read the works that Kozol has so thoughtfully shared with us. We owe it to our country and ourselves to open our eyes to what life is really like for the people so often judged as just "lazy" or "bad parents".

  28. 5 out of 5

    Peggy

    Why are academics liberal? Maybe because we read books like this. I dare anyone to read it and walk away thinking that children from neighborhoods like the one described here in the South Bronx just need to try harder to succeed at school and enter the U.S. economy seamlessly. I'd like to add that my jaw dropped at the description of the Rev. Martha Overall, Episcopal priest at St. Anne's, whose generosity, ferocity, attention, and love provided one of the few bright spots in the lives of many o Why are academics liberal? Maybe because we read books like this. I dare anyone to read it and walk away thinking that children from neighborhoods like the one described here in the South Bronx just need to try harder to succeed at school and enter the U.S. economy seamlessly. I'd like to add that my jaw dropped at the description of the Rev. Martha Overall, Episcopal priest at St. Anne's, whose generosity, ferocity, attention, and love provided one of the few bright spots in the lives of many of these children. All of America should love and honor these vulnerable children and provide them with the safety and security that we imagine all children to have. So thanks, Jonathan Kozol, for reminding me what the world is really like.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Courtney

    Took me awhile to get through but well worth the read especially working in education. While we have some low income schools in my district I don't think we know poverty like this. We also have pretty high quality public education. You get to follow the lives of a few select kids over their educational journeys. It's not heartbreaking the obstacles they have to overcome and also inspiring when some break through. The narrator is like a godparent to these kids. Well done!

  30. 4 out of 5

    Marcia

    Very interesting and eye opening read. It offers a peak into the lives of poor urban families and how it impacts the children coming from the projects. My biggest critique is that Kozol only offers these stories, without giving suggestions for the solution to the problem of getting poor children through the system successfully.

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