Scorpions is a realistic novel published in 1988 and set in a similar time period. It’s the story of Jamal, a 12 year old who is pulled into a gang after his 17 year old brother, Randy—the leader of the gang—is jailed for a robbery in which a clerk is killed. Mack, who was Randy’s second in command, wants Jamal to step up as leader and he gives the boy a gun as a way to enforce his authority.
The novel follows a few weeks in the life of Jamal and his best friend Tito as they try to survive the world around them. The tension was almost overwhelming for me—I’m not sure I’d have kept reading if I wasn’t planning to write a review. The apparently inevitable and inescapable downward trajectory for the boys was difficult to push through.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
Drugs and Alcohol
The Scorpions is a drug running gang. It’s made up totally of kids under age 18 so they can hopefully be prosecuted as juveniles if they’re caught. Their club house doubles as a crack house. Mack smells of sweet wine at 9:00am—he’s like 16 years old. He’s hanging out in a park full of winos and crackheads, and Jamal and Tito go to find him there. Tito notes that the addicts look like “thrown-away people” and he’s terrified of ending up like them. Jamal observes throughout the novel that many people seem to be on drugs.
“Faggot” is used twice as an insult. “Ass” is said as well. There are slurs against Puerto Ricans.
There’s a kid who beats up Jamal at school. The other members of the gang are willing to beat up or kill rivals (like Jamal). It’s a vicious world where adults either won’t or can’t help.
Mack gives Jamal a gun. Fascinated and scared, Tito and Jamal go to a park and shoot the gun, hoping no one sees them; however, a woman walks by and is scared of them. Jamal is worried about having the gun because he knows what kind of trouble it can bring. However, he’s more powerful when he has it. The bullies back down; the other gang members give him some respect. He feels safer. It’s very tempting to keep it, but it’s also a cause of stress—after he takes the gun to school to threaten the bully, he’s afraid he’ll get turned in which would ruin his life. However, no one tells on him, so he takes the gun home.
Fearing that his little sister will find it, he asks Tito to hang onto it. Tito’s Abuela finds the gun and throws him out of the house, praying hard for him. (Being thrown out doesn’t last long—at some point Tito just goes back home.) When the rival gang members—Angel and Indian—want to meet with Jamal in a park, the boys fear the worst. Tito takes the gun and hides, ready to help if things go bad. Of course they go bad—Indian and Angel start beating up Jamal, and then one of them pulls a knife. At that point, Tito shoots them both, killing Angel and injuring Indian. If Tito hadn’t had the gun, there’s a good chance Jamal would be dead. They get rid of the gun and go home. Mack takes credit for the shootings, allowing him to take over the Scorpions—Tito and Jamal appear to have gotten away with it. However, guilt gets the better of Tito. He tells his Abuela what happened, and they get a lawyer and go to the police. Because he’s underage, the police agree to let him go as long as he goes back to Puerto Rico to live with his dad. The gun both saves and destroys Jamal’s life. In the end, he wonders about trying to find where they threw the gun—he knows it’s a huge hazard, but he’s scared without it.
Violence and Rape
There’s a lot of graphic descriptions of people being beaten up. Randy is attacked in jail—he’s stabbed and almost dies. Jamal is terrified of jail or youth houses, because he knows that if you ended up there “the big guys ganged up on you and beat you up and then they had sex with you.”
Jamal’s mother works whatever jobs she can to make ends meet—she’s trying hard, but she’s stretched too thin to do much besides provide the basic needs for her kids. She’s trying to raise enough money to hire a lawyer to hopefully get Randy out of jail, or at least moved someplace safer. Jamal is frequently very worried about her and angry with Randy for putting them in this position. Jamal and his younger sister Sassy fight a lot. When Jamal’s dad comes to visit, he’s hard on Jamal. He tells him he needs to be a man, making money and providing for his family instead of helping with the dishes, which is women’s work. Tito’s Abuela is doing the best she can, but she’s in over her head.
Jamal is already a lost cause at school. He will never get the benefit of the doubt—the principal explicitly tells him that he’s just waiting for him to screw up enough to throw him out. He’s beaten up and verbally abused by his classmates. The nurse wants permission from Jamal’s mother so that they can give him drugs that will make things easier for all of them—I assume she means drugs for ADD.
Money—or lack of it—is a big deal. Tito and Jamal frequently talk about what they’ll do when they’re finally wealthy. Part of why Randy is still in jail is because they don’t have the money to get him out—or maybe that’s just people trying to get money from Jamal’s mother? She has to work several jobs just to barely make ends meet, which means she isn’t there for her kids and they’re afraid of making her life more difficult.
Poverty is a big part of why the end of the book is so hopeless. There are no apparent resources to make anything better. No one is going to be able to help him. Nothing has really changed for Jamal, except that Tito is now gone which means his conscience is in many ways gone. His future looks really bleak. He briefly had a job, but then some of the gang members came to the store. Jamal was unsurprised when he got fired—he wouldn’t have kept him either. Jamal is reactive instead of proactive—he just goes with the flow, responding to the things that happen to him. He seems unable to take a stand to change anything or say no to anyone. While I expected a worse ending (I really though Tito was going to get shot), there is no hope at the end of this novel.
Somehow through it all, Jamal’s mother and Tito’s Abuela find strength in prayer. After Randy is attacked in jail, a reverend comes to their home to pray with them. Jamal and Tito, however, don’t seem to get much out of prayer—although neither of them would dare say a word against it around those who believe in it.
Tito has asthma. In many ways it makes him seem a bit weak and makes running away a bit of a liability.
Most of the explicit racism is against Puerto Ricans, but it’s not hard to tell that a lot of the reasons that the lives of Jamal, his family, and others in the book are so difficult is because they’re African American.
It’s a brutal book, like many other Newbery books. Although it was in the juvenile section of our local library, as a parent I would want to be able to talk about it with my kid as they read it. There are just so many dark and difficult issues that are brought up that I’m not sure kids will know how to work through on their own. The idea of being raped in jail is just matter-of-factly mentioned in passing, but I’d want to talk with my kids about that issue as this book would probably be their first introduction to that idea.
Due to the tension of impending disaster, this book felt like a chore to me. It would surprise me if either of my kids could make it through this on their own. It’s possible they really should read it as a way to open up discussions about these difficult issues, but it’s not a book to read lightly. I don’t have an age recommendation—it’s a book for kids ready to deal with these issues.
Scorpions by Walter Dean Myers
Published in 1988 by Harper & Row Junior Books
Borrowed from our local library