Readers of Tears of a Tiger and Forged by Fire will not be disappointed in Darkness before Dawn, Sharon Mills Draper's third novel about a group of Hazelwood High students learning to live with tragedy. In her first award-winning novel, Draper told the story of a fatal car crash and its devastating effects on those who witnessed the accident and those whose lives were left empty when Robbie Washington died and, later, when Andy Jackson took his own life. Her second novel in the trilogy, Forged by Fire, focuses on Gerald, who struggles to define himself in the midst of domestic violence, addiction, and poverty. Although the subjects Draper writes about could be sensationalized, what stands out in all of her work is the depth of the characters, the sincere intensity of their voices, the intellectual and moral wrestling that drive their narratives.
In Darkness Before Dawn, it is Keisha Montgomery whose story at last is given full treatment. Keisha was an important character in Tears of a Tiger, for she was the girlfriend of Andy Jackson, the central figure in Draper's first novel. As Andy reeled from the loss of his good friend and then lost himself in a whirlwind of guilt about the accident, Keisha listened to him cry and worried about him. But-as Draper's experience as a high school teacher must show her again and again-there is just so long that a girl Keisha's age can sustain that kind of intense, therapeutic role.
Draper addresses this question subtly in Darkness Before Dawn, for although the memories of Andy are woven into Keisha's narrative, she has moved on, assumed the role of senior class president, and reached out in a new relationship. At the heart of these experiences, however, is the issue of trust. Keisha is pursued by an older man, twenty-three-year-old Jonathan Hathaway. He is the track coach at her school, the son of the principal, and one of the most handsome men Keisha has ever seen. Perhaps because of her life experiences, Keisha seems to have more in common with Jonathan than with the boys in her own class; while riding in his car, listening to smooth jazz, she says she "felt like the rock where my feelings used to be was starting to dissolve." He promises sophistication, control, and escape-things that appeal to Keisha in her fragile state, even to the point of deceiving her parents to see him.
When she thinks of Jonathan, it is in abstraction, "dreaming of paintings come alive with color and sound " But he is far from abstract. Her trust of him leads to a frightening confrontation, one that Keisha barely escapes and that reveals the young man's history of sexual assault and violence toward women. There is a lesson here about the wolf in sheep's clothing-in this case, well-tailored designer clothing-but the novel is much more than an exemplum on date rape.
As Keisha prepares for her commencement speech, she reflects on her high school experiences, her mistakes, her losses. But she also has reached a point of maturity that allows her to accept the advice of those around her: the voice of a trusted adult echoes in her mind, saying "Yo' spirit is a shinin' silver star, chile. Can't nobody take that away from you." Keisha also knows the importance of being connected in positive ways and wants her classmates to know that they are bound together. The most moving part of her speech is her recitation of a poem she has written, with each line repeated by the senior class members. Standing and holding hands, they state together that it is their joys and sorrows that sing, their wish for their circle to be unbroken. Because she has experienced true darkness, Keisha values every ray of the dawn before her. It is a hopeful yet realistic ending for this well-written, moving trilogy.
Virginia Schaefer Horvath, OHIOANA, 2002
This is the third volume in Draper's series about Hazelwood High that chronicles the experiences of a group of close African American friends, following Tears of a Tiger and Forged by Fire, but it isn't necessary to have read the other titles to enjoy this one. Draper tackles serious issues here, including a young dancer's anorexia as well as the suicide and the attempted rape. The up-to-date dialogue and the real-life problems will appeal to junior high and high school readers, girls in particular; and Keisha, her friends. and their warm, unceasing, supportive interactions with each other are appealing role models.
KLIATT January, 2001
- ALA BEST Book Award
- ALA Top Ten Quick Pick
- Children's Choice Award-- International Reading Association
- IRA Young Adult Choice--2003
- Buckeye Book Award--2005
The Hazelwood Trilogy