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Fire in the Ashes
Cover of Fire in the Ashes
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 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.

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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Excerpts-
  • Chapter 1

    The Journey Begins

    Christmas Eve of 1985 was not a good time for poor women and their children to depend on public kindness or prophetic reenactments of the Christian gospel at the hands of civic and commercial leaders in New York. It was a time when opulence among the city's newly minted rich and super-rich was flaunted with an unaccustomed boldness in the face of New York City's poor and homeless people, thousands of whom were packed into decrepit, drug-infested shelters, most of which were old hotels situated in the middle of Manhattan, some of which in decades past had been places of great elegance.

    One of the largest shelters was the Martinique Hotel, across the street from Macy's and one block from Fifth Avenue. In this building, 1,400 children and about 400 of their parents struggled to prevail within a miserable warren of bleak and squalid rooms that offered some, at least, protection from the cold of winter, although many rooms in which I visited with families in the last week of December were so poorly heated that the children huddled beneath blankets in the middle of the day and some wore mittens when they slept.

    I remember placing calls on freezing nights from phone booths on Sixth Avenue or Broadway trying to reach Steven Banks, a Legal Aid attorney who performed innumerable rescue actions for the families in the Martinique that year. The wind that cut across the open space of Herald Square at night was fierce, the sidewalks felt like slabs of ice, and kids and parents from the Martinique who had to venture out for milk or bread or medicines would bundle up as best they could in layers of old clothes and coats, if they did have coats, or sweatshirts with the hoods drawn tight around their chins.

    Dozens of kids I knew within the building suffered from chronic colds. Many were also racked by asthma and bronchitis. Infants suffered from diarrhea. Sleepless parents suffered from depression. Mothers wept in front of me.

    I had never seen destitution like this in America before. Twenty years earlier, I had taught young children in the black community of Boston and had organized slum tenants there and lived within their neighborhood and had been in many homes where rats cohabited with children in their bedrooms. But sickness, squalor, and immiseration on the scale I was observing now were virtually unknown to me.

    Almost every child that I came to know that winter in the Martinique was hungry. On repeated evenings when I went to interview a family I gave up asking questions when a boy or girl would eye the denim shoulder bag I used to carry, in which I often had an apple or some cookies or a box of raisins, and would give them what I had. Sometimes I would ask if I could look into the small refrigerators that the hotel had reluctantly provided to the families. Now and then I'd find a loaf of bread or several slices of bologna or a slice or two of pizza that had gone uneaten from the day before. Often there was nothing but a shriveled piece of fruit, a couple of jars of apple sauce, a tin of peanut butter, sometimes not even that.

    I continued visiting the Martinique throughout the next two years. During that time, a play about impoverished children of the nineteenth century in Paris, called Les Miserables, opened to acclaim in the theater district of New York. Some of the more enterprising children in the Martinique would walk the twelve or fifteen blocks between the hotel and the theater district in late afternoons or evenings to panhandle in the streets around the theater or in front of restaurants nearby. Homeless women did this too, as well as many of the homeless men, some alcoholics and some mentally unwell, who slept...

About the Author-
  • Jonathan Kozol is the National Book Award-winning author of Savage Inequalities, Death at an Early Age, The Shame of the Nation, and Amazing Grace. He has been working with children in inner-city schools for nearly fifty years.

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from June 18, 2012
    National Book Award–winner Kozol (The Shame of the Nation) again traces the workings of “savage inequalities”—this time on a generational timescale—in this engrossing chronicle of lives blighted and redeemed. He follows the fortunes of people he met decades ago in a squalid Manhattan welfare hotel and in the South Bronx’s Mott Haven ghetto, whose stories range from heartbreaking to hopeful: traumatized boys grow into lost and vicious men; teens go to college and beyond with the help of mentors; many drift through years of addiction, violent relationships, and prison before achieving a semblance of stability and focus. These lives are full of choices, good and spectacularly bad, but Kozol highlights the institutional forces that shape them: social service bureaucracies that warehouse the homeless in hellholes; immigration regulations that break up families; the academic “killing fields” of the Bronx’s terrible middle schools; the neighborhood church whose ministries rescue many kids. Eschewing social science jargon and deploying extraordinary powers of observation and empathy, Kozol crafts dense, novelistic character studies that reveal the interplay between individual personality and the chaos of impoverished circumstances. Like a latter-day Dickens (but without the melodrama), he gives us another powerful indictment of America’s treatment of the poor. Agent: Lynn Nesbit, Janklow & Nesbit Associates.

  • Kirkus

    Starred review from August 1, 2012
    The award-winning author of Death at an Early Age (1967) tells the stories of the later lives of poor children who grew up in the Bronx. Kozol (Letters to a Young Teacher, 2007, etc.) has worked with children in inner-city schools for 50 years. In this engaging, illuminating, often moving book, he recounts the lives of poor black and Latino children--many now close friends--who once lived in Manhattan's Martinique Hotel and were relocated in the late 1980s upon the closing of that crowded and filthy shelter to Mott Haven, a poor Bronx neighborhood. As the children grew into young adulthood, Kozol kept in touch with them and their families through visits, emails and phone calls. In a series of intimate portraits, he describes the astonishing odds the children faced and how many managed, with the critical help of mentors and caring others, to achieve successful lives, both in the conventional sense of graduating from college, but above all, by becoming kind and loving human beings. There is Leonardo, recruited by a New England boarding school, where he emerged as a leader; the introspective Jeremy, who befriended a Puerto Rican poet, got through college and took a job at a Mott Haven church that is central to the lives of many; and the buoyant, winning Pineapple, whose Guatemalan parents provide the emotional security of a warm home. "I'm going to give a good life to my children," says Lisette, 24, after her troubled brother's suicide. "I have to do it. I'm the one who made it through." Some children are still struggling to find their way, writes the author, but they do so with "the earnestness and elemental kindness" that he first saw in them years ago. Cleareyed, compassionate and hopeful.

    COPYRIGHT(2012) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    April 15, 2012

    Wrapping up the coverage of a group of inner-city children he began with Rachel and Her Children and Amazing Grace, the National Book Award-winning author of Death at an Early Age follows a group of city kids into adulthood. Look for the galley at BEA.

    Copyright 2012 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Christian Science Monitor "Kozol's storytelling gifts shine through: with simple anecdotes that show the soulful humor, compassion, and wisdom that kindles progress among the survivors."
  • Boston Globe "Fire in the Ashes isn't some saccharine account of how disadvantaged youth get a break and then triumph over adversity. Instead, Kozol shows us the very real costs of putting children in bad schools....Throughout, Kozol connects with these kids and young adults on a human level, refusing to step on to some political soapbox."
  • Portland Oregonian "As I read Fire in the Ashes and thought about Kozol's admirably principled commitment to chronicling the lives of the urban poor, I marveled at his staying power. His tone, too, has been consistent for almost 50 years -- cool, smart, empathetic and, despite all the evidence to rebut his convictions, full of hope....Kozol's brilliant body of work shines a light not merely on the lives of the poor, but also into the dark night of the American soul."
  • Savannah Morning News "Check out this magnificent book, because I think you'll like it. For anyone [who] cares about his fellow human, Fire in the Ashes burns bright."
  • Publisher's Weekly (starred) "Engrossing chronicle of lives blighted and redeemed....Eschewing social science jargon and deploying extraordinary powers of observation and empathy, Kozol crafts dense, novelistic character studies that reveal the interplay between individual personality and the chaos of impoverished circumstances. Like a latter-day Dickens (but without the melodrama), he gives us another powerful indictment of America's treatment of the poor."
  • Kirkus Reviews (starred) "In this engaging, illuminating, often moving book, [Kozol] recounts the lives of poor black and Latino children--many now close friends--who once lived in Manhattan's Martinique Hotel....Cleareyed, compassionate and hopeful."
  • Booklist (starred) "An engaging look at the broader social implications of ignoring poverty as well as a very personal look at individuals struggling to overcome it."
  • Ellis Cose, author of The End of Anger and The Rage of a Privileged Class "Jonathan Kozol is America's premier chronicler of life among the children of societal neglect. And Fire in the Ashes may be his best book yet . . . . Kozol does not just write about these people; he becomes an intimate part of their lives, sharing their triumphs, defeats, and, too often, mourning their deaths . . . . If you care about the children who are the future of America, this is a book you must read."
  • Marian Wright Edelman, President, Children's Defense Fund "Despite the steep odds stacked against these children--which too many cannot overcome--this is a hopeful book thanks to those who do. The incredible resilience, grit and grace of children like Pineapple are a call to urgent action."
  • Deborah Meier, author of In Schools We Trust and The Power of Their Ideas "Kozol has a knack for describing his relationships with poverty-stricken children with a sympathy that is so straightforward one cannot indulge in pity. Fire in the Ashes is a wonderful book. I couldn't put it down."
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