A complex memoir of friendship, a coming-of-age story for both a young teacher and a student, and an expansive, deeply resonant meditation on education, race, and justice in the rural South
In this deeply moving book, Kuo stewards the hard-won literary awakening of one student, Patrick.
Michelle Kuo’s Taiwanese parents cannot understand why she wants to join Teach for America after graduating from Harvard University. Nevertheless, she arrives in the Mississippi Delta town of Helena, Arkansas in 2004. Kuo quickly realizes that her new home, the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement, is still poor, still segregated and still in need of dramatic change.
She also breaks the cardinal rule of teaching: never have favorites. Patrick is inquisitive and quiet with a poor attendance record. With Kuo’s attention, Patrick’s reading and writing flourish and he wins a school-wide award for “Most Improved.” When Kuo leaves Helena to pursue a law degree, it is Patrick she will miss the most.
Three years later, Kuo’s attention is snapped back to the Delta when she receives the shocking news that Patrick is in prison for murder. Shocked and plagued by questions – had her departure three years before set him on the wrong path? Had it been foolish to think she could counter the crushing legacy of Jim Crow simply by showing up for two years and giving her students quiet reading time? – Kuo puts her life on hold and moves back to the Delta to continue his education.
In the visiting room of the Phillips County Jail, she and Patrick spend seven months poring over classic novels, poems, and historical narrative by Frederick Douglass, C.S. Lewis, Marilynne Robinson, James Baldwin, W.S. Merwin and more. Patrick learns how to be a serious reader and a fluent writer, and in doing so, discovers new worlds both inside and outside of himself.
In her time reading with Patrick, Kuo is herself transformed as she contends with the questions of what it is we owe each other, what it is to live a good life, and how deeply racism has penetrated our institutions. What kind of connection can two people make when there exists such dramatic inequality between them? Can you still create spaces where truth and beauty connect you, where you share a similar love of words and stories? Can those things sustain us and do they matter if the inequality remains?
At its heart Reading with Patrick is a meditation on rural majority black spaces and what we owe them. And it is a story of the miraculous effect of the written word and the consolation it provides.
A relentlessly honest and engrossing memoir, READING WITH PATRICK is, as Claire Messud says, “a defining story for our times, and, abidingly, a testament to the power of language and of books.”
READING WITH PATRICK will be released in the US (Penguin Random House), UK (Pan MacMillan), China (Citic), and Taiwan (Locus).
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A portion of the book's royalties have been set aside for several funds, including a personal fund for Patrick, a college fund for his daughter, and donations to the Boys & Girls Club of Phillips County, an organization I have worked with, in Patrick's honor. If you are interested in exploring avenues to contribute to the Delta, in particular programs related to felon re-entry and adult literacy, please get in touch.