Coming of age in a turbulent time
In Fire in the Streets, Kekla Magoon picks up where her award-winning 2009 novel The Rock and the River left off, exploring the role of young people in the Chicago office of the Black Panther party during and after the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
Maxie, a 14-year-old girl who lives in the projects and is in an on-again, off-again relationship with Sam (whose older brother was killed in the first book), wants to be a full-fledged Panther. She is tired of babysitting the leaders’ children, filing papers and straightening out the office. Maxie is in that in-between stage between childhood and adulthood. She wants to be a grownup, but she still loves her best friends. She wants to have a boyfriend, but she is confused by Sam’s mood swings.
She worries about her mother and the parade of men through her house, and she also worries about having enough to eat and the money to pay for electricity and the phone. She wonders how her older brother manages to hold the family together.
After a violent attack on the Panther offices, it becomes clear that Maxie has what it takes to be a real Panther. She is observant and is asked to keep her ears and eyes open for a mole in the office. Someone is giving information to the police, and Maxie is determined to find out who that is. When she finally discovers the truth, Maxie is faced with a moral decision that changes many lives.
Magoon was wise to have Maxie tell her own story, as the first-person narrative allows the reader a front-row view of her angst, worry and nearly blind love for the Panthers. We understand the attraction that the Panthers had for many young people, and we further understand how far some will go to belong to the group. The moral questions of Fire in the Streets are many, and readers will be left to consider them for a long time. The historical backdrop adds a lot to the novel, but, in the end, it’s a powerful story of one young person trying her best to find her way in a complicated world.