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The Residue Years

The Residue Years - 'Mitchell Jackson',  'Mitchell S. Jackson' 3.5 stars

I'm happy to see this book getting such a big push around Portland. "Portlandia" has a national image as a kooky, liberal utopia, and the fact that it's overwhelmingly white is often used as a punchline. That flippancy, though, ignores a long and violent past, and a history of displacement and racism that very much continues through the present day. Mitchell's novel serves as a forceful reminder of the Portland that's swept under the rug, the lives that have largely been ignored or exist only as headlines about gang violence and drug raids; he draws his characters with empathy and humanity, and the bond between Grace and Champ is beautifully rendered. We certainly see their flaws and the way they rationalize their poor choices (particularly Champ, whose fate initially seems less inevitable than Grace's), but the weight of their situation allows us to see that much of what happens is inescapable - there are no easy choices, and very little help along the way.

Still, as a novel, some things work, and others don't. Grace is a heartbreaking character, but, as a narrator, she is elusive; we never get into her head quite the way we get into Champ's. The narrative has fits and starts and is sometimes uneven. Nevertheless, Mitchell's a vibrant writer, and The Residue Years is poignant read, sparking needed conversation about gentrification, poverty, community, and who is granted visibility and humanity.