Tayari Jones

"Leaving Atlanta"

(Reviewed by Kam Aures FEB 10, 2003)

Tayari Jones' debut novel takes place in Atlanta in the year 1979. The story is a work of fiction; however, the serial murders described on these pages are based on a string of ghastly murders that did actually occur and were referred to as "The Atlanta Child Murders." From 1979 through 1982, some 28 African-American children and young adults disappeared from Atlanta--some without a trace, but others to later turn up as murder victims. The novel portrays the disappearances and murders as told through the eyes of three students in the fifth grade class at Oglethorpe Elementary School: Tasha Baxter, Rodney Green and Octavia Harrison. All three are linked together by common denominators. Even though they come from different backgrounds and family lifestyles, they are all outcasts at their school for varying reasons. While they are not really friends with each other, their lives mesh in certain situations providing seamless transition through each of the three parts of the book.

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Tasha works hard at trying to fit in with the popular students at school, Monica and Forsythia. All summer long she tirelessly tried to perfect her jump roping and jacks skills so that when she returned to school in the fall she would be able to "make a place for herself among the girls in her class." At recess on the first day she finds out that jump roping is now "baby stuff." Monica, however, does agree to play jacks and Tasha impresses everyone with her skills. Defeated, Monica comes back with, "That's alright...I just let you win because my mother told me that everyone is supposed to be nice to you because your parents are getting separated and everything." Tasha's dad had moved out but she just thought about it as her parents "living apart," not "separated." Once the harsh reality of the situation sunk in, Tasha begins to act out. One day at recess Tasha gets into a run-in with Jashante, "a project kid." Because of this confrontation she is alienated by those she once thought were her friends.

Rodney, is a boy who Tasha has described as "the weirdest kid in her class, maybe in the whole school even." Rodney has an abusive father, a mother who does his homework for him, and a baby sister who can do no wrong. Rodney has fallen in with the wrong crowd and is stealing candy from a neighborhood store. One day, Rodney's father comes to the school to punish Rodney with a belt in front of all his classmates for something that he had done.

Octavia Harrison is a very dark skinned girl whom the kids tease and call "the Watusi, because she looked like a black African." She lives with her mother across from the projects and her father lives in South Carolina with his new wife and baby. Her mother works the 11pm - 7 am shift to try to make ends meet. Octavia's mother lies a lot to both Octavia and Octavia's Granny. As Octavia states, "She tells them all of the time. For all kinds of reasons. Some of them make sense and other times it's like she lies just to hear herself talk." When she was younger, Octavia believed most of the lies. For instance, walking with her mother one day, Octavia saw a needle in the grass. Instead of being told it was a dope needle, she is told it is a doctor's needle and not to touch it because the doctor will be returning for it. When she saw those same doctor's needles in her Uncle Kenny's bag one day and told her mother, Uncle Kenny
was kicked out of the house. This is an example of one of those lies that didn't make any sense to tell and just ends up confusing Octavia when she saw Kenny get kicked out. Why should Uncle Kenny get kicked out for having harmless doctor's needles?

The missing children and the murders come into play in Part One while Tasha is watching TV and the news runs a story on the tragedies. The story frightens the community and extra safety measures are put in place for the children. Even with the extra precautions, children are still disappearing. It is refreshing and different to see a novel that focuses on an event such as "The Atlanta Child Murders" from a child's point of view. Throughout the book, there is little mention of any details of the actual murders that took place. Instead, we are allowed to explore the emotional relationships among the children and the effects that the disappearances of their friends have on them and the community.

A unique aspect of the book, and one that I find a little "corny" (for lack of a better word), is that the author names one of the fifth grade characters after herself - Tayari Jones. According to the dust jacket, the author was a child in Atlanta when the real murders took place. Tayari, while not one of the main characters, appears in bits and pieces throughout the novel.

The book is written in a descriptive style, which allows you to vividly picture the characters and settings. For instance, "hair stuck out around her face like the rays of sun in a kid's drawing" and "downpours destroyed hopscotch markers carefully chalked onto asphalt and stole the bounce from tennis balls forgotten in backyards." These passages allow us to really get deeply involved in the novel's details.

Leaving Atlanta provides an interesting fictional account of a true tragedy through the eyes of children. The main characters in the book are all from slightly different backgrounds and it is interesting to see how the perceptions and fears differ from child to child. While most of the children are overly cautious, one flirts with danger because he feels he does not have anything to lose.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 39 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Leaving Atlanta at MostlyFiction.com

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About the Author:

Tayari JonesTayari Jones was born in downtown Atlanta, Georgia, and she spent most of her formative years in Atlanta. Jones attended Spelman College as an undergraduate, then went on to the University of Iowa to earn her Masters degree. After serving as a remedial reading teacher in Prairie View, Texas, Jones decided to pursue her writing. Then, while attending a conference in Portland, she ran into one of her favorite authors, Jewell Parker Rhodes , who offered Jones the opportunity to study creative writing under her tutelage at Arizona State University.

Three years later, Jones is celebrating the publication of her first novel, Leaving Atlanta. Jones received First Prize in the Hurston/Wright Award for 2000, a prestigious national literary competition. She also received the Robert C. Martindale Award for fiction, the Arizona Council for the Arts Artist Fellowship, and the LEF Foundation Prize.

She lives in Phoenix, Arizona.

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