Review: Trell by Dick Lehr

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for a review.  Thank you to Candlewick Press, Dick Lehr, and LibraryThing for sending me an advance reader copy.  All opinions are my own.

Around the time I started to walk, I also started asking Daddy the same question at the end of our weekly visits. Every time, the same question, like if you put a word bubble next to me in every photo from when I was a toddler through elementary school, the question was the same, year after year.

“Daddy,” I would ask, “when you comin’ home?”

Based on an actual event in Boston in 1988, Trell tells the story of a man wrongfully convicted for the murder of a child from the point of view of his teenage daughter. Since shortly after her birth, Van Trell Taylor (“Trell”) has only known her father in jail. For the last fourteen years he has insisted on his innocence to no avail. After legal avenues prove to be dead ends, Trell begins to hound a local, washed up investigative reporter to revisit the rush to convict her father. As Trell and the reporter begin to uncover serious flaws in the conviction, they come to realize that someone else doesn’t want the truth to come out and will do anything to stop them.

White Savior
While technically well written and well paced, the story in Trell is, in many ways, less about Trell and her family and more about the role of the reporter in the story. This isn’t terribly surprising since the Dick Lehr, the author of Trell is a former investigative journalist on the Spotlight team at the Boston Globe.

This set up raised a bit of a conundrum with me. I’m typically leery of white authors trying to write the stories of black communities; however, in the case of Trell, the book is loosely autobiographical. Lehr himself re-investigated the 1988 shooting death of teenager Tiffany Moore in Boston as a reporter at the Boston Globe. As a result of that reporting, the wrongful conviction of Shawn Drumgold was overturned in 2003 after he had served fourteen years in jail for a murder he didn’t commit. Rather than tell this story as a straight autobiography from the position of the white reporter, Lehr reimagined the story from the point of view of a family member of the wrongfully convicted man. This choice made the story more compelling and enabled Lehr to write it as a YA book, though of course this also meant a white man was writing the voice and story of a black teenage girl. He does, as far as I could tell, manage to avoid anything seriously problematic in his writing of Trell. She is one of the only black kids at an all-white school she goes to on scholarship, but this is a trope Angie Thomas is also guilty of in The Hate U Give, so it’s a little hard to fault Lehr for using this one—and this is also a reality for a lot of kids wanting to escape neglected schools in the inner-city.

In the course of developing the relationship with the reporter, Trell becomes interested in journalism. These bits are a touch cheesy (not over the top—this is YA after all, so the bar is a bit higher for it be over the top) and contribute to the overall “journalist will save us” vibe. Lehr does do a good job making Trell be the driving force—it isn’t the journalist uncovering clues. Rather, he’s the one showing Trell certain techniques and where to look so that she is usually the one making the discoveries, not the journalist. If this weren’t the case, I think I’d have more problems with the book. Lehr clearly made an effort so that, while the book is all about the journalism, it’s also all about Trell.

The “White Savior” aspect of the book would probably bother me more if I didn’t know Lehr himself investigated the Drumgold conviction and contributed to its being overturned. This story and the role journalists played in uncovering injustice deserve to be told and Lehr is one of the better ones to do it.

Policing Black Communities
Lehr is sensitive to the climate and the realities of the view of the police in communities where Trell lives. When a significant crime happens today in a community of color, we all shake our heads with the news pundits and question why no one called the police sooner or why seemingly no one will come forward now. Lehr addresses this head on at one point, with Trell explaining how people have seen police misconduct in person in many of these communities or known someone affected by police misconduct. When you add the penalties that come from “snitching,” there is very little reason for many people to trust the police’s ability to do the right thing or, even if they are, to protect them.

This wasn’t something I ever thought about until relatively recently. In many ways, the death of Mike Brown and my friendships with an African-American woman and a biracial Latinx woman were what started to open my eyes. Issues like those in Trell, The Hate U Give, and American Street were not ones that ever would have crossed my radar when I was the intended audience of YA books. I wish I had been able to read books like these when I was in high school, rather than having to read adulthood to really see the injustices faced by communities of color, including injustices at the hands of law enforcement.

The book is clearly a YA book and is readable for ninth grade and up—possibly a little younger for advanced readers. Language-wise, I don’t recall anything offensive. So long as a juvenile reader is prepared for the thematic elements in Trell, this book would appeal to a slightly younger audience than something like The Hate U Give or American Street, though I think it also holds the attention of older YA readers. Because of where Trell lives and how the homicide happened, there are repeated references to drug use and gangs—nothing graphic (no one actually does drugs in front of Trell) but also not subtle. Drugs and gangs aren’t glorified and one of the characters who lives in a house where a lot of the drug dealing and gang activity happens clearly wants to get out. I probably would have found this book shocking when I was in school but with everything on television, kids today are substantially less sheltered than I was twenty years ago. I don’t personally think there’s anything problematic here.

It wouldn’t be a book review on this blog without a comment on the writing. Lehr writes like a journalist, even when writing narrative fiction. This isn’t a bad thing—each word is carefully chosen, the sentences are clear, and the narrative moves forward in a coherent and deliberate pace, with a clear climax and resolution. There’s nothing flowery in Lehr’s writing but there’s also nothing distracting. This isn’t a book where I felt I wanted to re-read sentences but it’s also not a book that made me wish he’d had a better editor.

Trell isn’t a perfect book but it’s still one worth reading. I probably won’t keep my copy but I hope it gets into good hands in the Little Free Library I’m going to drop it off in. I’m glad I read it and do see myself recommending it. I think it raises important issues that are still immediately timely and it’s also an easier book to recommend on these issues if I know someone will be put off by the language in something like American Street.

Shawn Drumgold Sources
Original Boston Globe article raising concerns with conviction
Drumgold awarded $5 million for wrongful conviction

Published: September 12, 2017 by Candlewick Press (@candlewickpress) (Happy Book Birthday, Trell!)
Author: Dick Lehr
Date read: September 2, 2017
Rating: 3 1/2 Stars

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