Gutter Child by Jael Richardson is on the TBR lists of many readers this winter and it lives up to its hype. This is a well-written story and social commentary that examines the inherent issues of inequality, injustice, and class in society. After hearing Jael, the cofounder and artistic director of Brampton, Ontario’s Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD) speak at an online event with the Kitchener Public Library, I immediately ordered myself a copy.
The story has a YA dystopian feel, but the setting is one that can easily be imagined with a world divided into haves (Mainland people) and have-nots (Gutter people). The Gutter people are born into debt that they spend their lives trying to pay down to earn their freedom and get out from under the Mainlanders’ restrictive and controlling system.
The first third of the book captivated me. Readers are introduced to Elimina as she enters Livingstone Academy – a place where she is forced to live and learn basic work skills with the intention that she will be sold to the highest bidder, working for decades to pay off her debt and earn her freedom. Similarities between Canadian Indigenous residential schools and slavery are clear, and during this part of the book the pacing is high, and the world building is skillfully and vividly set for Elimina and the reader.
The book progresses into the next part of Elimina’s struggle, but I found the pacing and tension to slow a bit and the ending felt somewhat rushed. I was left wanting to know more about this world and parts of the story that were touched on. It is my hope that Richardson has a follow-up book to address these great story lines.
Overall, this is an engaging dystopian, YA coming-of-age story filled with a strong main character and themes of privilege, injustice, and slavery. Its connection to modern-day racism and classism is easy to note and sometimes hard to read, but this is also a story about resilience, strength, friendship and hope that will give readers much to discuss. I’ve heard whispers that this book is already being planned into high school curriculum here in Ontario and I think it is the perfect book to encourage discussion on issues of inequality, racism and colonialism. The issues raised clearly mirror those which continue to influence the lives of so many people in North America.
Copies of Gutter Child are at available to put on hold at WPL. Make sure you add this to your TBR list as soon as possible.
— Laurie P.