American Street meets Long Way Down in this searing and gritty debut novel that takes an unflinching look at the harsh realities of gang life in Jamaica and how far a teen is willing to go for family.
Things can change in a second:
The second Frankie Green gets that scholarship letter, he has his ticket out of Jamaica.
The second his longtime crush, Leah, asks him on a date, he’s in trouble.
The second his father gets shot, suddenly nothing else matters.
And the second Frankie joins his uncle’s gang in exchange for paying for his father’s medical bills, there’s no going back...or is there?
As Frankie does things he never thought he’d be capable of, he’s forced to confront the truth of the family and future he was born into—and the ones he wants to build for himself.
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Read an Excerpt
frankie put down his empty water bucket on the side of the steep mountainside road that was just wide enough for a sedan and two well-fed goats. The sun had only just started to warm, too early for the post office to be open. Still, Frankie gazed at the ramshackle building. His scholarship letter could be inside. It was nearly all he thought about these days. If it came—if it brought good news—he soon might be headed off to study in America. Jamaica was so bankrupt it could hardly afford hope, but hope was Frankie’s light, and one he shined often.
In the distance lay miles of lush green forest and fields, and beyond that, the capital city of Kingston. A handful of twenty-story structures sat at the center of the skyline. Near the Olympic stadium, where he’d once seen the Jamaican sprinters practice relays, stood the University of the West Indies campus. Frankie knew he could get into their engineering program, but all a Jamaican diploma guaranteed was debt. Jobs for young people were just too hard to find.
Gnats circled. Frankie stuck a forefinger in the corner of his eye and removed a dead one. He studied it—his own career might be as short-lived, even if he got the chance to study at the University of Arizona. A classmate’s older brother had recently come back from America—he hadn’t been able to secure work even though he had a master’s degree in engineering. No way was Frankie going to let that happen. He flicked the gnat away.
The rev of an engine broke the early morning quiet. A black Toyota barreled down the mountain toward him. A thumping bass and pulsating rhythm rippled through the humid air, Sizzla’s raspy voice and reggae lyrics flowing from the car stereo. His uncle Joe’s long, sinewy arm emerged from the window of the shotgun seat, in his hand, a Glock revolving in a slow, tight circle like a predator stalking prey.
Frankie smiled, then pulled it back to a smirk. His uncle always kept a round in the chamber. Pulling the slide took time, and time was what you didn’t have when things got ugly. Uncle Joe had his finger on the trigger, and the road had a lot of potholes. A step to the left or right to get out of range would have been the smart thing to do—cuz accidents happened. But Frankie held his ground.
The Toyota rolled to a stop in front of Frankie. “Pop, pop, pop, pop!” his uncle shouted, his thick brown dreads making his angular face look even more so. He lowered his gun and extended his fist. Frankie bumped it with his own, catching a whiff of weed so skunky it had to be good. Uncle Joe’s red eyes confirmed it. Ice Box was at the wheel, engulfing the driver’s side with his massive frame. He was one of Joe’s enforcers. His other, Buck-Buck, sat in the backseat talking on his cell phone.
“Wha gwan, Nephew?” Joe asked. “You hear about the scholarship?”
Frankie couldn’t go anywhere without being asked that question. “Not yet, Uncle.”
Joe pulled back his locks, gazing at him. “If you get it, you going to run away from Jamdown. You going to leave your people.” Joe was still smiling, but his words felt like a slap.
“I’m not running away, Uncle.”
Joe held up a hand—wait—as his phone buzzed. He searched his pockets, pulled out a flip phone and a Blackphone, and answered the Blackphone.
The flip phone was prepaid, Frankie knew, with nothing that tied his uncle’s name to it, and the Blackphone had special encryption in case he had to send a message.
Like Joe had just sent a message with his dis: You going to run away from Jamdown. Sure, Frankie wanted to leave Jamaica for the job opportunities in America, all his friends did. Jamaica was like a messed-up parent: You loved it, but at the same time you wanted to leave it. You said bad things about it, but you’d get mad if anyone else said anything bad about it.
Frankie wanted to explain that. He paced while his uncle barked at whoever was on the other line.
Finally Joe clicked off the phone. “Yes, Nephew.”
“I’m not running away, Uncle,” Frankie said again. “Once I set myself up over there, I’m coming back, gonna do some big things for Jamaica.”
“Big things, eh?” Joe nodded slowly. “Ambition is important, just no forget is here you born, is here you should spread your roots. And you must watch out for Babylon. It’s even bigger in America than Jamdown.”
Frankie nodded back knowingly. For his uncle, and all Rastafarians, “Babylon” meant corruption in the government and police forces. Joe loved to rail against Babylon as much as he loved to smoke ganja.
“All the wickedness and oppression them perpetrate is a sin me tell you,” Joe went on. “Them allow rich man in suit and tie to steal money them don’t even need. Poor people steal to eat and them go jail.” He sucked hard at his teeth.
Frankie looked away toward the post office, then back to Joe. “But Uncle, you do jobs for the PNP.”
Joe wore an oh, please look on his face. “Me work with the devil that pays me. But that doesn’t mean me won’t call them a devil. P-N-P”—he slowly drew out the letters—“that’s supposed to be the People’s National Party. Now, you going to stand there and tell me they really do anything for the people except feed them bogus theories on how people fi live?” He tapped his gun against the side of the car. “And the other joke. JLP. Jamaica Labour Party—they don’t create any decent jobs for normal people.”
Frankie folded his arms. He’d been doing a lot of reading up on America lately—he might spend four years there! They had two main parties too. As far as he could tell, the JLP was conservative like the Republican Party, and looked out for businesses. The PNP was liberal, and pushed for the rights of workers. But it couldn’t be that simple. Some kids in school were really political, but Frankie thought they just sounded like they were repeating things their parents had said. Would he become more political if he went to America? He wasn’t now, here in Jamdown.
Joe shook his head. “JLP, PNP, whatever, every fucking political party is the same thing.” He frowned. “Yeh, mon, like me say, I have to work with them but me don’t have to agree with their bullshit.” He looked toward Kingston in the distance. “Them protect me from police, and me get them votes. And you know how important that is, right? Whoever wins the Kingston vote, wins Jamaica. I tell you, it’s just one big shitstem.”
Joe’s Rastafarian accent was thick, sometimes even difficult for Frankie to understand. But there was no doubt he was down for the people. It was probably the reason everyone in his posse loved him so much.
Ice Box tapped Joe’s shoulder. “We going to be late, mon.”
Joe turned to Frankie. “Me would give you a ride but me have business in town. Later, Nephew.” He slapped the dash. The Toyota pulled away.
Frankie watched until the wave of the dust kicked up from the tires settled. Things were always exciting when Joe was around, even if nothing really happened. Frankie liked that thrill. He knew he shouldn’t. Posse life wasn’t for him. But still.
It was time to get back to work. He headed over to the old standpipe on the other side of the road. Setting the bucket beneath it, he twisted the iron handle. Water rushed out, water he and his father would use to drink, cook, and flush their toilet. Bucket filled, he gripped the handle and began his mind game: in order to keep his daily task from becoming life-sucking boredom, he would challenge himself to spill not a single drop. He straightened up, but too fast; water sloshed toward the metal rim. Frankie froze. Losing before he even started would make his journey up the mountain feel endless. The water calmed, then settled. He exhaled, took a slow step. Next step, next. As he strode up the road, he moved faster and faster, putting more skin in the game, determined not to spill anything.
A mile into the two miles to home, his arm muscles burned. He paused to shift the bucket to his other hand.
Just past a row of flowering breadfruit trees, Frankie looked out over the gully at the explosion of green—coffee plantations that had been there for decades. The Blue Mountains wore mist like fine jewelry. This could be a scenic overlook, he thought, something to bring in tourism, and money. It wouldn’t even take much construction. A small loader tractor and a few volunteers could do the trick. The problem was the town across the way to the right. Stony Mountain housed a concrete juvenile detention center so massive, so overcrowded, it was practically its own city. The sun glistened off the stream that rippled down to the bottom, and Frankie looked at it longingly. There were underground streams higher up the mountain, and he knew there had to be a way to pipe the water down—like Roman aqueducts—to his own town. People were used to the hour-long journey for water each day—but they shouldn’t have to be! It was something he could do for his town, for others like his—once he came back from America with a degree. If only he could get there. He set off again.
Once the road flattened, the strain on his legs easing Frankie entered the town of Troy. The butcher’s shack, the small elementary school, the rum bar, and Mr. Brown’s general store, where Frankie worked, weren’t open yet. He passed several one-bedroom houses nearly identical to his own, then glanced down at his bucket; small swells lapped the sides, but not a drop spilled. Yeah!
Then a scream, followed by a yelp, pierced the silence. Frankie scanned the area. Damn. In the clearing just past his house, Garnett, Afro funkier than ever, was gesturing angrily at someone sprawled in the dirt.
What the hell was Garnett doing here? He had moved away from Troy last year, to everyone’s relief, especially Frankie’s best friend, Winston. Garnett was always after Winston. Now Frankie noticed the fine clothes—the distressed denim shirt and pants. Huh? Garnett wasn’t smart enough for a paycheck job.
He had to have signed on with a Kingston posse. A whole heap of guys were doing it.
And now Frankie knew exactly why Garnett was here. And who was on the ground. He set down the water bucket just as Garnett sprang toward Winston and kicked him in the stomach. “You haffi’ learn respect!” he barked.
Frankie assessed the situation: Garnett’s shirt clung to his body—no weapon bulged in the front or back. So he sprinted forward.
Winston rolled away, clutching his stomach. “Me didn’t mean anything.”
Frankie launched himself at Garnett as he was readying to unleash another kick, driving his shoulder into Garnett’s back.
They slid onto the dirt. Garnett swung, clipping Frankie’s nose. Eyes watering, Frankie hit back, pounded his knuckles into Garnett’s ribs—once, twice. Garnett curled in a ball like a spider about to die as Frankie hopped up, poised to keep swinging. Backing away slowly, eyes on Garnett, he said, “Winston, man, you okay?”
Garnett slowly unfurled, slowly stood, dirt on his fancy shirt, jeans, his cheek. “Me see your uncle drive past,” he scoffed. “You a big man only because him protect you.”
It was true. The thought of Joe was the only thing that kept Garnett at bay right now.
“Just go,” Frankie said in as calm a voice as he could manage. But he knew this wasn’t the end of it.
Winston braved his way over to them. “You lucky Frankie stopped, or you would get a proper beating,” he jeered.
Frankie smacked Winston’s arm; goading Garnett would only make things worse. But Winston always had to save face.
Garnett smacked his lips as if his mouth was full of bitter fruit. “Me not done,” he said, spreading his fingers menacingly before he turned and stalked away.
“What’s he doing up here anyway? I thought he left.” Frankie said as soon as Garnett was out of earshot.
“Don’t know. Visiting his ma?”
“Maybe. You all right?”
Winston slapped his ample belly. “Well padded, mon.” He stood there, chest out, as if he had just fought Garnett and won.
“So, what’d you do to piss him off this time?”
Winston smirked. “Me just point at his fancy clothes and ask if him win a gift certificate at the Dollar Store.” Winston’s eyes darted from side to side. Then, in a low voice, he said, “Wait till him find out me in a gang too.”
Frankie gaped at him. “Gang? What gang?”
Winston’s eyes went wide. “Shhhh.”
Frankie spun around: Was Garnett back? No—but nearly as bad, here came Samson. Frankie’s father was a sinewy man, a half foot shorter than Frankie, but his fury always made him seem a half foot taller.
“Frankie!” he bellowed now. “What the hell is this? Me can’t believe it, you out here fighting on the street!”
“Yes now, Spanish Town, you daddy gonna beat you with the doo doo stick!” Winston hooted as if they were still in grade school.
Samson’s quick, chopping steps brought back memories of past beatings, each one accompanied by some version of My daddy did beat my behind till I reached twenty-one! Frankie was nearly eighteen, too old for this. Still, he shrank back, braced himself.
His father’s hand hovered by his belt buckle. “Me don’t want you on the street fighting! How much times me have to tell you?”
Frankie wanted to say this wasn’t like the last time, this was Winston, he couldn’t turn his back on his best friend. It was just how things were. “Garnett started this,” he blurted out instead. Those words were easier because he knew how his father felt about Garnett.
“What?” Spittle flew from Samson’s mouth. “Don’t blame nobody for this.”
“You don’t even want to know what happened!”
Embarrassment flickered across his father’s eyes. He wasn’t used to this kind of pushback, Frankie knew, not in public. Frankie usually tried to make things work, walk the tightrope when he had to. But he’d just done a really good thing—stood up for his friend—and it was like his father didn’t want to know about it—
“Me going beat you.” Samson took his belt off and whipped it through the air so fast Frankie didn’t have time to dodge, and it hit Frankie’s hip bone like an electric shock. The next pass cut across Frankie’s back. Spinning away, Frankie grabbed at the recoiling end. He missed, but it was enough to shock Samson. His father stood there for a moment, heave-panting, then stormed back toward their house.
Frankie glared after his father, then glanced at Winston, who gave Frankie a see-you-later chin up. But then he came over for their special handshake—fist bumps, snaps, and crossed elbows—and said he’d stop by the store where Frankie worked after school. He walked gingerly, hunched at the waist, chest no longer peacocked out. Garnett got him good after all.
Frankie watched until Winston made it home; he didn’t trust Garnett not to sneak back and jump him. As he turned back around, he nearly knocked over the water bucket. That would have sucked! He bent to pick it up, finish his daily game of delivering the water without spilling any. A sharp zing of pain made him flinch, and fury at his father flared, the sense of injustice like a mad dog that couldn’t be reasoned with. He cupped a handful of water, a taste as sweet and refreshing as any he’d ever had. Then, glaring at his father’s house, he tilted the bucket, released a slow stream, and angled it until it was empty.
Reading Group Guide
Reading Group Guide for
Your Corner Dark
By Desmond Hall
About the Book
Things can change in a second. The second Frankie Green gets that scholarship letter, he has his ticket out of Jamaica. The second his longtime crush, Leah, asks him on a date, he’s in trouble. The second his father gets shot, suddenly nothing else matters. And the second Frankie joins his uncle’s gang in exchange for paying for his father’s medical bills, there’s no going back . . . or is there? As Frankie does things he has never thought he’d be capable of, he’s forced to confront the truth around the family and future he was born into—and the ones he wants to build for himself.
1. The story begins with Frankie carrying water home after going to the well. The author creates a picture for us about how challenging it is for him to carry the water without spilling it, paying attention to the ground, the holes, and more. How might him carrying this water and having to deal with the obstacles along the way be a metaphor for his life?
2. Throughout the first several chapters, we notice the pressure Frankie feels about the scholarship. Everyone keeps asking him if he received notification or has an update. What does this scholarship symbolize for him? For his father? For the school?
3. When Frankie finally learns he has earned the scholarship, his father says, “‘Me tell you you would get it,’” before going back to his housework. What do you make of his response? How does Frankie feel in response to his father’s words and attitude? What does this tell you about Samson’s character and possibly their relationship?
4. The author works hard to develop the characters in the story in a way that allows us to move beyond any stereotypes we might have of people associated with poverty and/or gangs. How would you describe Winston? What are his characteristics, and how would you describe him as a person?
5. Joe is the gang leader, but also Frankie’s uncle. Describe Joe’s traits, values, actions, thoughts, and feelings based on the way we encounter him through Frankie and Aunt Jenny. Do you think he’s a typical or stereotypical gang leader? Is he more complicated than that? Give examples from the novel to support your answers.
6. Samson and Frankie’s relationship is complicated. What factors make their relationship difficult? What role does Frankie’s mother’s death play in their father-son bond? What words would you use to describe this relationship and why?
7. Frankie expresses some unresolved concerns and frustrations surrounding his mother’s death. What are they? Why do you think there was so much silence around her illness?
8. The story presents issues of physical abuse at home. We learn from Aunt Jenny that “‘Daddy beat Samson till him nearly dead.’” Similarly, Samson punishes Frankie physically and leaves marks when he does. Later, Joe also hits Frankie in the face. A concept that comes to mind is generational trauma. What do you think generational trauma means, and how does this pain and abuse impact the family? Given that this is a serious and challenging topic, how does the author use this novel to share more about it, and what do you think he’s trying to communicate to the reader? How do his words and these scenes make you feel? Explain your answers.
9. Later on in the book, Winston dies by Garnell’s hand. Frankie is overwhelmed and struggles to move past his best friend’s death. How does Winston die? How is his death a symbol or possible warning for Frankie?
10. After Frankie shoots toward Ray-Ban boy, he has deeply mixed feelings and overwhelmingly regrets his own situation. Buck-Buck says to Frankie, “‘You turn a man today. Joe not telling you that, but him say that to me.’” What does it mean that he “turned a man” on that day? How is violence connected to manhood and strength in the lives of Joe and his gang?
11. Buck-Buck gives Frankie a new name after his first shooting. He says, “‘Respect due to Frankie Green, killing machine!’” How does Frankie feel about this new name, and what is becoming his new identity? How does Winston react to this new name once he speaks to Frankie?
12. Leah’s passion is art and paintings. We learn that her art is considered political. What is political art? What risks does she run with her art? How does Frankie feel about her paintings? What role does painting play in her life? Is her artwork dangerous for her or for others? If so, how?
13. This book features both violence and death. Discuss the power these kinds of scenes can hold, especially when the two are glorified in any way. How do you think the author is portraying violence and death? What messages is he sending? Is the reality of gang life well developed? If so, what do you think are the lessons and themes present in this book?
14. In chapter forty-nine, Frankie has a moment of reflection: “He thought about who he’d killed and helped to kill. There was no cause for celebration. Nineteen bodies in the garbage truck.” How are his views contrary to the life he’s living in the gang? What other moments show he is not comfortable or in agreement with his surroundings? Are there moments where he gives in? If so, which ones and why?
15. When Samson dies, we get to see and learn about death traditions and ceremonies in Frankie’s Jamaican community. What is the ceremony and tradition like? How is that similar to or different from your family’s rituals and ceremonies around death? Name some traditions here in the United States, and compare and contrast them to the ones you’ve read about.
16. As the story progresses, Aunt Jenny’s role in the gang is slowly revealed to us. How important is she to the leadership of the gang? What is her relationship like to Joe? What tactics does she use to assert herself or her beliefs?
17. Throughout the story, the author depicts different types of women. He shows us Frankie’s mother, through his eyes and experiences; Aunt Jenny; the counselor; Leah; Leah’s grandmother; and the nurse. What words would you use to describe each one? What role does each play in the story and development of characters around them? Why do you think the author chose to include so many different perspectives and experiences? What does it tell you about the various forms of womanhood present in Jamaica, and the stereotypes that often exist?
18. Toward the end of the story, there is a big shoot-out on the mountain between Joe’s gang and Taqwan’s. Can you summarize the events? What kind of imagery would you use to describe the scene? What role does Frankie play? What is symbolic about the way Joe and Taqwan are both taken after they’re dead?
19. If you were in Frankie’s shoes and had to choose between joining your uncle’s gang to save your father or leaving for another country with an academic scholarship, what would you have done? What would have influenced your decision? Does it feel like his choice was necessary, irresponsible, reasonable, illogical? Explain your answers.
20. Trace Frankie’s growth and changes throughout the story. Is he a dynamic character or a static one? What lessons does he learn? What changes happen to him and how, if at all, does he transform by the end of the story?
The book is set in various places in Jamaica. For example, we spend time at Frankie’s school, his home, and the bush where Joe lives. With a partner, consider the different places where Frankie visits and spends time. How would you describe each? How does his role change in each? What pressures or realities does he have depending on his setting?
Identify the objects, people, and actions that represent larger ideas. For example, Frankie’s gun becomes an important object in his life. It represents power and safety, but it also represents going against his father’s wishes, as well as doing something he doesn’t want to do. Consider other symbols in the text: What do they represent? How do these symbols relate to character development? How do these symbols relate to conflict?
Form a small group with two or three classmates. Then choose one character in the story and do an in-depth study of their characterization. Analyze the character’s physical attributes, thoughts and feelings, motivations, actions, and important milestones in the story. Consider the character’s impact on the plot of the story, including the conflict. Lastly, prepare your findings to share with the rest of your class. Once each group has presented, discuss as a class how the author builds and creates characters that are complex and thoughtful, and that go beyond stereotypes of Black people and communities.
*Teachers, consider using the author’s Characterization and Story Structure in a World of Danger Using Your Corner Dark lesson plan as an additional resource for this activity: https://bit.ly/37I82Xp
There are moments in the story, particularly when Samson is sick in the hospital, where characters talk about herbal medicines or the power of land to heal us. This is not a common belief system in the mainstream United States, yet it is for many others in countries all around the world. Research herbal medicines, especially those unique to Jamaica, and their connection to land and geography; then discuss as a class how these are generally perceived in the United States.
Exploration of Culture:
Through Joe, the author introduces us to the ideas of Rastafarian culture. Research more about the culture and belief systems. Answer some of the following questions:
Who are some famous Rastafarians?
What do Rastafarians believe?
What is the history of Rastafarian culture in Jamaica?
How is Rasta culture related to marijuana?
Once you’ve read about and discussed this culture, assess as a class whether or not Joe was a true Rastafarian. Winston claims, “‘Me say Joe not even a real Rasta.’” Do you think he’s right? Explain your answer.
Through Leah, we learn a little about art in Jamaica. Research famous Jamaican artists and paintings. What style of art is common in Jamaica? What issues do Jamaican artists take on?
In chapter forty-two, we encounter the issue of colorism. Colorism can be described as the way racism (preference for light(er) skin) shows up among and within communities of people of color. Frankie reflects, “Light-skinned Jamaicans like her had so many damn issues with people who looked like him.” Use this chapter to start a conversation with your classmates about race, racism, and colorism. Do a close reading of these pages. Closely analyze Penelope’s, Leah’s grandmother’s, words. In small groups, research each topic (race, racism, colorism), and gain greater context for why this issue exists and how it complicates this relationship between Frankie and Leah.
Other books teachers can read to explore alongside Your Corner Dark:
Long Way Down (Reynolds), This Book Is Anti-Racist (Jewell),
American Street (Zoboi), Gone to Drift (McCaulay),
Lorena Germán is a Dominican American educator who works with middle and high school students, as well as supporting teachers and schools to ensure best practices in terms of inclusivity and antibias, anti-racist approaches. She’s been published by NCTE, ASCD, EdWeek, and featured in The New York Times. She’s a two-time nationally awarded teacher and is co-founder of #DisruptTexts and Multicultural Classroom, and currently chairs the National Council of Teachers of English’s Committee Against Racism & Bias in the Teaching of English.
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