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UpstateReview - Upstate
by Kalisha Buckhanon
Audio Renaissance, 2004
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Mar 1st 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 9)

Upstate is an unusual novel since it is in the form of letters between two people, Antonio and Natasha.† Antonio is in jail, at first, waiting for his trial for the murder of his father, who was stabbed at the family home over a dozen times.† It is 1990, and the two young people are boyfriend and girlfriend, 16 and 15, African American, from Harlem, New York City.† At first Antonio is hopeful that he will win his trial, but he is being tried as an adult and he is not getting good legal advice.† As he writes about the trial, it is revealed that his father was abusive and that he had planned to kill his father.† So when it is clear that the trial is going badly, he Antonio agrees to plead guilty to manslaughter and he is sent to an upstate prison for a ten-year sentence.† Of course, Antonio finds it very difficult in the prison, and although he and Natasha plan to stay together until he gets out, they come to realize eventually that it is not a realistic plan.†

Of course, Buckhanon sets herself a difficult task, because most teenagers have such poor writing skills that reading their letters would be utterly tedious.† So she adds to the plot the added ingredient that both of them are very smart and eloquent, even though they were not studious in high school.† Antonio spent a lot of his time getting high and the two of them were often sneaking off to have sex.† So Buckhanon makes the letters quite believable, and both characters seem young and naÔve at the start.† In fact, getting through the book takes some perseverance since they are full of unrealistic expectations for the first three quarters, and it is only towards the book's end that they really start to grow and face their situations and the difficulty staying together.†

The audiobook version of this book is performed well by Chadwick Boseman and Heather Simms, since they bring out the strong emotions in the words and they make it easy to understand the African-American 1990s slang and dialect, which might be challenging for some readers in the text version.† The book is occasionally sexually explicit and has a fair amount of profanity, so it might not be suitable for some young people.†

The strength of Upstate lies in its ability to convey the pressures on young black people and how the demands of images of masculinity and toughness make some young black men ill prepared to deal with life.† At one point, Antonio says from prison that if he had been more able to express his emotions when he was younger, he might not have ended up where he was.† We also see Natasha grow in her self-confidence and progress from a struggling high school student to a woman with a professional career.† But the downside of the format is that it becomes tiresome to go through years of letters written with a lot of slang, and I was glad to get to the end of this short book when it eventually came.†

 

© 2005 Christian Perring. All rights reserved. 

 

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.


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