This Side of Home explores the effect of gentrification in an inner-city Portland, Oregon neighborhood. At the forefront of Renee Watson’s novel is a twin sister relationship that is changing along with their neighborhood. As Nikki and Maya enter their senior year of high school, they find their viewpoints maturing in different directions. Part of an activist African-American family, their shifting perspectives on identity mirror the shifting demographics of their community. As white families and businesses move in, Maya finds herself questioning the changes:
“But for all the things I like, I can’t help but wonder why the changes we’ve always wanted in this community had to come from other people and not us. I don’t understand why Nikki doesn’t get that, why she doesn’t get me.”
Their once-close relationship is now strained as the sisters try to understand their identity and their place in the world. Their best friend’s rental house is fixed up and placed on the market, forcing poverty-stricken Essence to move 45-minutes from the sisters. Essence rails against the updates, questioning why the landlord never took the time to fix the problems with the house while she and her mother called it home. Maya empathizes with Essence, going so far as to refuse to hang out with the daughter of the new (white) owners once they move in. Her sister, Nikki, doesn’t have an issue becoming friends with Kate and with exploring the new shops and restaurants that have begun moving into their once barren neighborhood.
Maya contemplates her community and her race with depth and maturity, exploring all sides of these issues. As much as she wants to take a complete stand against a white invasion of her neighborhood, she has found that she does treasure walking safely down her street, an experience she hasn’t always known. And when she begins to develop romantic feelings for Kate’s brother, Tony, Maya is forced to face her own judgement of the racial divide.
Much of the novel takes place within the walls of their school, the same school that Maya and Nikki’s parents attended. A new principal leads the school during the twins’ senior year, and his welcome back speech leaves a lot to be desired for Maya when it comes to respecting authority figures. Principal Green negatively focuses on all that is wrong with the school and its students, hindering any chance to earn Maya’s respect. His speech struck a chord with me as a former middle school teacher in inner-city Brooklyn. Every year we told the students what the statistics were on them ending up incarcerated and dropping out. We didn’t focus on what they could become because we were so scared of what we knew was out there. Maya’s narration showed me what some of the students must have thought as we tried to scare them straight:
“And I wonder why Principal Green told us what we might not be instead of telling us the possibility of what good we could become.”
This Side of Home would be an invaluable tool for discussions in schools and among families, particularly in areas where there may not be much diversity. There are many thoughts Watson makes her reader privy to, ones that whites may not have ever considered.
“I hate that the first thought that came to my mind was if the suspect was black. But ever since I was a child, I’ve carried the shame and pride of my black brothers and sisters. When a black person fails or succeeds it means something. All my life strangers have come up to Dad in a store, at the mall, or at church just to tell him how proud they are of him. “It’s good to know that there’s a good black man taking care of his family and doing something positive,” they say. They never just call him a man. He is always a black man. I wonder, if he were white, would his accomplishments seem so significant?”
Posing thoughts like these to her reader through the lens of two teenage girls trying to figure out what their own views are allows us to safely explore what community development really means- who it affects, and at what cost. Watson explores these issues with such grace and honesty that she makes a complex topic accessible to any audience. Through the twins, Watson reminds her readers to never forget the past, but to be optimistic about the future.
Meaghan Choisnet is a library assistant in Youth Services. Have suggestions for future book reviews? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.