This book of first love for young adults tackles some somber themes in American history, including economic deprivation, racism, slavery, and violence.
According to the author, this book was inspired by Olivia Butler’s masterpiece, Kindred, and indeed, it contains some of the same elements, albeit updated. But it is far from a recapitulation; there are notable differences, and it is worth reading in its own right.
Genna, who narrates, is a 15-year-old girl who thinks she’s an ugly duckling: too tall, big feet, short nappy hair, and just not “cute” like other girls – not even like her own sister, who is very popular with the boys in school. Her mother is black, and her father, who left them, is Panamanian. He didn’t like the way blacks were treated in the States, but Genna’s mother told Papi she was an American and refused to leave the country.
Genna, her mother, and three siblings live in a tiny two-room apartment in a depressed area of Brooklyn. But it is blissfully close to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, an oasis of beauty in an otherwise horrible environment. Often Genna goes there, tosses a penny in the fountain, and makes a wish that she “could live inside someone else’s body, even for just one day.”
There are two ways in which this dream comes true for Genna. The first is in the figurative sense, through meeting Judah, a handsome boy in her class from Jamaica who unbelievably (to Genna) decides he likes her. He has his aunt do her hair in dreadlocks and wrap it in African fabric. He kisses her right in front of his aunt. All of the sudden she is in a different body:
Before we left, Judah pulled me over to a mirror and made me stand there next to him. He looked at my reflection and told me to look as well. ‘What do you see?’ Judah asked me.
For the first time, I really looked at myself in the mirror, and for once I didn’t feel ashamed. With Judah there beside me, and the African cloth wrapped around my head like a golden crown, I felt beautiful.”
But in a reflection of her mother’s life, this boy to whom she now feels emotionally bound wants to go to Africa. Genna doesn’t feel the African connection – she sees her destiny in America. She wants to go to college and become a psychiatrist. Judah has no interest in studies.
One day, Genna also gets her wish in a more literal way. At night, visiting the fountain in the Botanic Garden, Genna loses consciousness, and awakens to find herself as a runaway slave in 1863 Brooklyn. She still has her own body, but she has traveled back to a time just before the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation on New Year’s Day, 1863. Her back has been flayed (she has no memory of time spent as a slave), and kindly blacks arrange for her to be treated by Dr. Brant, an abolitionist white doctor.
When Genna heals, Dr. Brant, impressed with Genna’s learning, employs her as a nanny to help his wife and baby son. Soon she also accompanies him on rounds to the black part of Brooklyn, then called Weeksville, to help other escaped slaves who are ravaged by typhoid fever. And there she finds Judah. He too has come back in time, to find her, and he too has returned as an escaped slave. Telling Dr. Brant that Judah is her brother, Genna convinces him to give Judah special care, and he later takes him in to stay in the coach house with his black driver.
The story then progresses to an historic event not well-known, the New York draft riots of 1863. In March of 1863, a new stricter federal draft law was passed. All males between 20 and 35 and all unmarried men between 35 and 45 had to enter a lottery for enlistment in the Civil War. But men who could pay $300 could hire a substitute. And blacks were exempt. The first lottery in New York was set for July. On July 13, two days after the lottery, five days of rioting and bloodshed began, started by poor whites who did not want to go off to fight a war to ensure freedom for blacks. Not only were they racist, but they did not want competition for jobs from free blacks when they themselves could barely find work. The Colored Orphan Asylum was set on fire. (The children managed to escape.) Black men caught outside were tortured, stoned, hanged, mutilated, and burned. In all, rioters lynched eleven black men over the five days. Hundreds of blacks left the city.
In A Wish After Midnight, Judah and Genna get caught in the streets during the mayhem. They run from the vicious mob, but are overtaken. Genna soon loses consciousness. When she revives, she is back in the Botanic Garden in present day Brooklyn. Judah is not with her. Nevertheless, she knows that somehow he will get back to her, just as he found her in 1863. It is September 10, 2001.
Evaluation: Zetta Elliott, the author, who is a beautiful swan, somehow knows exactly how it feels to have been a teenager who felt like an ugly duckling. She understands the pain of being an outsider, and yet this book doesn’t dwell on that pain. Rather, it focuses on Genna’s determination to make a better life for herself.
This is a book that you won’t easily forget. It would make a good addition to lessons teaching about this period in history. Highly recommended.
Published by CreateSpace, 2009