If you like your YA literature gritty and urban, consider one of the earliest choices that meet those criteria: A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich.’ Alice Childress’ novel explores the world of a young heroin addict, at a time when there was no DARE, no “Just Say No”, and few options.’ And in exposing the lack of options, Childress gives us a chilling look at how urban life used to be–yet it’s a world that doesn’t feel that distant from today’s cities.
A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich
Benjie Johnson isn’t a heroin addict.’ He could stop any time he wanted; that’s how he knows he’s not hooked.’ Yet when two of his teachers bust him and he’s sent to rehab, then released, Benjie finds that quitting is harder than he thought.’ He has to get clean–not for his mother or grandmother, or for his friends.’ Benjie will have to kick heroin for himself–and that’s a hard lesson to learn.
First and foremost, this novel tackles questions about race and society.’ Published closer to the end of the Civil Rights Era, after the assassinations of figures like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, there were still many questions about African-American identity.’ Many of the characters in A Hero . . . struggle with this search for identity.’ For Benjie, it’s a choice between two role models.’ He could be like Butler, his mother’s boyfriend who works as a janitor and keeps his head down, preferring listening to Coltrane records and drinking Seagrams to agitating for change.’ Or Benjie could look to his former teacher, Nigeria Greene, who teaches about black heroes and instills his students with a sense of their own worth, but with a defiant attitude.’ In the course of the novel, Benjie doesn’t necessarily find the answer, but as he attempts to get clean, it’s the support of Butler that helps him get through.
Perhaps this is the real issue within this novel: the importance of male role models for boys of any race.’ Benjie resents Butler’s presence at first, because he thinks that Butler is stealing Benjie’s time with his mother.’ Butler feels he doesn’t have the authority to help Benjie as he would like, since he isn’t even Benjie’s stepfather.’ Yet Butler and Benjie learn together that there is a place for each of them in the other’s life, regardless of a lack of a legal relationship.’ As there are now many articles and news stories talking about the lack of father figures for young African-American males, Childress seems to have anticipated this issue.
A Hero . . . is full of intriguing moments, like Benjie’s grandmother and her former life as a shake dancer.’ Since the novel is told in multiple voices, with occasional newspaper and newsletter articles, the novel reads like a docudrama.’ If it had been written today, the tagline of “Based on a true story” would probably be added to the title.’ These other voices help explain the world that Benjie lives in, the world that doesn’t seem to have much for him.’ When he discovers heroin, suddenly Benjie’s life is bearable.’ But when he has to get clean, Benjie is forced back into the real world of dead ends and too many questions without answers.’ But slowly, he learns how to face his life and make it what he wants.