In the 1980s, journalist Adrian Nicole LeBlanc embarked on an ambitious personal assignment to candidly explore and characterize a culture that's often overlooked. She immersed herself in the chaotic world of the Bronx to get the story, sleeping on slum floors, visiting jail inmates and hanging out on the steps of projects. The 11-year journey culminated in her book, Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx, the fascinating true story of two inner-city Puerto Rican girls growing up fast during the heyday of Wall Street and crack cocaine. The tale begins with Jessica a voluptuous, hazel-eyed beauty who gets swept up in a volatile romance with Boy George, a young heroin dealer who showers her with fur coats, jewelry and exotic trips abroad. Coco, a sweet-natured 14-year-old, falls hard for Jessica's younger brother, Cesar, an aspiring criminal who fathers two of her children. The early days are full of joy rides, nightclubs and passionate couplings, but the good times don't last. Boy George and Jessica are investigated by the FBI and DEA, and Cesar goes on the lam following a botched robbery. Coco is left to survive as best she can through a fluid network of kinship relationships. The two women are products of an environment rampant with casual sex, drugs and violence, and they fall into a seemingly inevitable cycle of poverty and abuse. By the time she's 20, Coco has four children by three different men. She tries to provide for her kids while maintaining a long-distance and dysfunctional relationship with Cesar. Jessica and Coco are taught "to be sexy, to respect family, that all men were dogs but that without them women were nothing," LeBlanc writes, and the contradictory messages reinforce a sense of despair. But the women are resilient and scrappy, forging family ties where they can find them. Too soon, they are the young, single parents of teenagers heading down the same rocky paths with little chance of escape. Steering clear of judgment and sentimentality, LeBlanc matter-of-factly presents the complex cycle of intergenerational urban poverty. What could be an unlovely portrait of a broken-down world becomes, in her hands, a bittersweet tale that sheds some much-needed light on the plight of poor, inner-city families. Written with candor, sensitivity and respect, Random Family is ultimately more than a hard-luck saga; it's a universal story of survival and hope. Journalist Rebecca Denton writes from Nashville.

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