Genie Harris and his older brother Ernie are city boys whose family life is on the rocks. Their parents, to try to mend their strained marriage, send them to live with their grandparents out in the country for a month in the summer while they go on their first vacation since the boys were born. When Genie and Ernie arrive in North Hill, Virginia, their dad’s childhood home, they realize that their parents’ isn’t the only relationship in crisis; Ernie, Sr., barely speaks to his own father and the silence is clearly concealing some deep family injuries. In As Brave As You, the author, Jason Reynolds, shows how harboring resentments and not taking responsibility for one’s mistakes can tear a family apart. It turns out that the keys to healing, for three generations of Harris men, are communication and forgiveness.
The Harris brothers have hardly ever stepped foot outside the New York metropolitan area. They are Brooklyn boys, through and through. So, when they’re forced to spend a month with Grandma and Grandpop in rural Virginia, they are entering an unknown world. Genie has never even met his grandfather, who, he quickly learns, is blind and, according to the man himself, crazy! With no internet access and no cell phone reception, the ever-curious Genie quickly attaches himself to Grandpop to try to understand his many unique and exotic qualities and practices. If he’s blind, how does Grandpop know how to get to his bedroom? How does he know when to stop pouring iced tea? Why does he sit in the room across the hall all day? What is a blind man doing carrying a revolver? Through his inquisitiveness, Genie quickly develops a friendship with Grandpop, and then discovers that his grandfather’s life is governed by fear and guilt: fear of leaving his house, and guilt over the death of his eldest son.
Of course, Grandpop is not the only person impacted dramatically by Wood’s death in Operation: Desert Storm. His younger son, Genie’s father, Ernie, Sr., has still not forgiven Grandpop for ‘forcing’ Wood into the armed forces. The father and son become even more deeply embroiled in their conflict due to the disastrous consequences of Grandpop’s insistence that Ernie, Jr., complete the family rite of passage by learning to shoot. Throughout his stay in North Hill, Genie witnesses Grandpop’s further isolation from his only remaining son, and comes to realize the curse that’s fallen on the men of his family.
The storyline of As Brave As You is wonderful and complex. The author weaves the interior struggles of Genie, Grandpop, Senior, and Ernie, together to show in a profound way how dishonesty and resentment can destroy relationships and how cowardly it is to live in those vices. Reynolds even introduces a fourth generation, Genie’s great-grandfather, with whom this cycle seems to have begun. Each of the Harris men, in his own turn, isolates himself from his family because he is unable to apologize and come clean about a terrible mistake that he has made. Instead, he lives with the guilt and shame of his errors. In Genie’s case, when he accidentally kills one of Grandpop’s birds, his guilt is compounded by fear that his grandfather will find out before he is able to ‘fix’ the situation.
The weakest aspect of this book is the immaturity of the main character. Yes, Genie is a twelve-year-old in the 2010s, so we could look past his consuming internet addiction as an unfortunate reality that twelve-year-olds now live with almost universally. The problem is not necessarily that Genie is immature, but rather, that he does not seem to grow through the course of the book. Furthermore, Genie’s maturity is inconsistent and unrealistic. He spends four weeks getting to know his grandfather, coming to a deep understanding of the family’s history and the emotional scars that exist therein, and reflecting on all of this in his notebook and through the narrator. But when the time of reconciliation between his dad and Grandpop finally comes, Genie witnesses this intensely emotional, heartfelt moment between father and son, and his only thought is of leaving the room because, as he says, “things were getting weird,” (p. 402). Perhaps a twelve-year-old would feel uncomfortable in such a setting, so maybe we can forgive Genie, but we can’t forgive the author for ‘writing down’ to his audience. He crafted a touching story of family tribulation, of fathers and sons reconciling after years of anger and resentment, and instead of showing his young readers the appropriate and mature way to respond to such a scenario, he affirms their juvenility and devalues one of the culminating moments of his book.
In the end, As Brave As You is a little bit disappointing because it doesn’t live up to what it could have been. That being said, the story is enjoyable, the characters are vibrant, and, if you read into it properly – the way that Genie should have seen things – the lessons are positive. Bravery looks a bit different for each of the Harris men, but it always requires being honest with yourself and with others, and it often demands a willingness to apologize and to forgive.
- Do any of the characters in the story exhibit true bravery? How?
- Do any of the characters in the story act cowardly? When?
- What does Genie do after he accidentally kills one of his grandfather’s birds? How do his actions make things worse for himself and others? What should Genie have done?
- How can feelings of guilt negatively affect our relationships with others? You can use Genie, Grandpop, or Grandpop’s father as an example.