- Threatening to Shatter
Victoria Christopher Murry
496 Pages; Print, $31.99
When I approach my longer works, I find it both relevant and honest to be clear about my positionality. I am moved to take that same stance in this book review. I will begin by saying that I am a black woman, the mother of one child, who happens to be a 17-year-old boy. For me, reading Victoria Christopher Murray’s Stand Your Ground is, perhaps, the definition of gut-wrenching. One reason why is what she does best—and most painfully—throughout the novel: lay bare a mother’s almost incomprehensible grief at the loss of her only son. Janice Johnson, the book’s main protagonist, and her husband, Tyrone, are, like each of us in the United States, caught up in the increasingly publicized, politicized, and polarizing issue of the murder of unarmed young black men. Yet, they are involved in a way that we all hope never to be, as the parents of one of the slain youth. On one dark night, in one distorted moment, their 17-year-old son, Marquis, is forever stolen from them. Part One of the novel is drawn over just a few unbearably long days, in which the heartbroken parents must come to terms with the meanings of their son’s death. The reader views this through Janice’s perspective. And Murray paints that perspective in heart-breaking detail. Imagine never seeing your child smile again, never eating his runny eggs and burnt toast on Mothers’s Day again, never feeling the quick press of his lips against your cheek again, never hearing his voice again. I imagined the questions Janice grappled with, the whys, the hows, and the one I have entertained as mother to an only child: If you lose your child, are you still a mother? I tried, for a moment, to put myself in her place, to put myself in the place of Sybrina Fulton (mother of Trayvon Martin) or Samaria Rice (Tamir Rice’s mother). And I could not imagine my vibrant, multi-faceted child lifeless and cold. That Murray brought me so close is testament to her skill.
Murray is also particularly adroit at capturing the intimacies and difficulties of married life. Though the love and closeness between Janice and Tyrone is evident, tension looms just beneath the surface of their relationship, threatening to shatter their newly-found peace. Still healing from the damage of an extramarital affair, the couple finds the death of their child almost too much to bear. They are unable to agree about the best way to seek justice for Marquis’s death once they find that he was killed by an older white man who claims to have been “standing his ground” (hence, the title of the book) in the face of a menacing Marquis, an image far removed from the boy they knew. While Janice wants to wait on the legal system to take its course, Tyrone is vocal about how his position as a black man and the rash of cases in which people from George Zimmerman to police officers have been acquitted of the murders of black youth leave him with little faith in that system. Instead, Tyrone wants to put pressure on the police and the District Attorney through an organization called the Brown Guardians. The Guardians vow to seek justice in cases like Marquis’s, via public demands, protest marches, rallies, and, Janice fears, more nefarious means. She believes they are little more than vigilantes, a belief underscored by the fact that the Guardians are led by Tyrone’s brother, Raj, whom she hates. This disagreement is but one cause of the growing distance between Janice and Tyrone in the ensuing days and the reader is left to wonder with her if she will lose both her child and her husband.
Janice’s reluctance to call upon the Guardians was initially baffling to me, especially as they agreed to play by her rules. The pressure they exerted brought about the early release of Marquis...