Monday, December 8, 2014

Better Than Fiction

This one might be out of order, but doesn't matter much given that all my reviews are months behind anyway :) When I go to my in-laws' house, I often pick up something to read there rather than continuing with whatever I am in middle of elsewhere.  One such book was To Sir With Love.  The premise, an educated black man teaching inner-city kids, reminded me of Up a Down Staircase, of which I read a Reader's Digest condensed novel version and enjoyed, back in the day (the black teacher was the added twist as far as I could see).  Only after I started reading it did I realize that it takes place in 1950's London, quite a different scene from the American inner-city, and with different racial overtones as well.  The kids are white trash, the teacher is black upper class, an engineer from South America.  So that's the scene.

The basic story is civilized black man civilizes uncivilized white students, mostly by treating them with respect and shocking them into good behavior.  It's a nice idea, but subject to skepticism - are inner-city kids really just fine adults waiting to shine through? When I started reading, this was my immediate reaction... until I realized something important.  The book is based on a true story.  Now that is a tale worth telling.  E.R. Braithwaite really was a black engineer who took a job teaching poor white Londoners in the years following WWII, and managed to instill both intelligence and breeding (ok, in limited quantities) despite the racial prejudice standing in his way.  Once I realized that, I could enjoy the book free of the niggling "yeah, right" feeling.

And it was a good read.  I, at least, felt a constant tension that some big explosion was just around the corner, but that never happened (no complaints from me about that :)) Small crises arise, but Mr. Braithwaite ably deals with each one deftly and successfully.  And the way the students warm to him is of course quite endearing.  The writing style is spare and a little blunt at times (and of course, with a viewpoint that is occasionally a little dated), and is quite easy to read.  The characterization is excellent (don't know how much liberty was taken with reality here), with each person a mix of virtues and vices in some combination.  There's also a bit of a romance, in an open-ended but hopeful state at the end of the book (this was apparently an embroidery of the truth since E.R. Braithwaite never married).  And it was certainly fascinating to read about racism and society outside of America.

So I certainly enjoyed this book.  And it was short, too, so not too much of an investment.  Pretty light, despite some heavy-ish subject matter.  Recommended :)