What does it take to break a cycle? To pluck a kid from a life hemmed in by poverty and lack of opportunity and show him wider horizons? What does it take to convince a kid that cultivating respect and demonstrating responsibility are worth the trouble?
In some communities it's chess. Or ballroom dancing. Debate. Not infrequently, it's song - a low-overhead activity, not a lot of equipment needed. But in the Fletcher Street neighborhood of Philadelphia, deep in a bad, bad neighborhood, it's horses. Dedicated adults tend an improbable set of stables and barns, teach the neighborhood kids how to care for the horses and how to ride, provide a safe place and a sense of usefulness for children who might otherwise find themselves in trouble or in danger or both.
Into this backdrop Greg Neri drops Cole, short for Coltrane, a teenager from Detroit who has been quietly falling into truancy and other bad habits. Not a fighter, nor a criminal, he has merely been losing touch with school and with his single mother. Cole's overwhelmed mama makes the difficult decision to send the boy to live with his father, a father he's never met.
You see where this is headed, don't you? Cole's dad is one of Philadelphia's cowboys, a gruff, uncompromising man who lives for the horses and is unprepared for family. A crisis looms as the city attempts to close down the stables. But in the end, Cole and his dad come to terms over caring for the beasts, prove themselves to each other, and even develop a certain amount of affection. Cole learns about hard work and self-respect.
We have been down this trail so many times before that I am a bit torn: does the fact that this time we are in the city and on a horse make up for the fact that almost any reader will have seen its resolution from a mile away? Am I more interested in the stables and the adults who frequent them than I am in Cole's rather muted sorrow and rebelliousness? Does the sheer unlikeliness of a crowd of cowboys in urban Philadelphia distract from the family drama?
Maybe. But. In the end, I will recommend Ghetto Cowboy, partly because we are low low low on realistic YA fiction for boys nowadays, partly because the horse thing is so damn unlikely, but I think mostly because I think boys will recognize gentle Cole, a boy who could have dropped out of school and faded carelessly into idleness, who only needed one extraordinary thing to wake him to his potential.
Ghetto Cowboy is Greg Neri's follow-up to last year's grim but great graphic novel Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty. They share a little sense of detachment and a sharply observant main character. Both books are also inspired by real people, in this case the black urban cowboys of Philadelphia and New York City.
I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley and read it on my Sony Reader.