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by Adam Rapp
Front Street Books, 2002
Review by Su Terry on Dec 16th 2002

Little Chicago

Little Chicago by Adam Rapp is a vivid novel about a sexually abused child. The novel describes the social and psychological impact that sexual abuse has had on one eleven-year old boy as he struggles for understanding and acceptance by his friends, peers, teachers, and family.

Little Chicago by Adam Rapp is set in a town outside of Chicago.  Eleven-year old Gerald “Blacky” Brown has been sexually abused by his neighbor and his mother’s sometime boyfriend, Al Johnson. As the novel opens, Blacky has returned home after staying overnight with Mr. Johnson while his mother works the nightshift at the hospital. Shay, his seventeen-year old sister, finds him. He is confused, naked, and badly scratched after running through the woods that separate the two houses. Shay takes him to the hospital where their mother works. Blacky is examined by a doctor then questioned by a woman from Child Services and finally he is released into his mother’s custody. The next day, Blacky returns to school as if nothing has happened to him, but Blacky has trouble concentrating and relating to his peers. Blacky finally confides to his best friend, Eric Duggin, what happened, but Eric rejects him. Bad news travels fast in the school and soon it seems that the entire student population is aware of what has happened to him. Many of the boys go out of their way to taunt him and some even play cruel jokes on him. At lunch, he finds himself forced to sit at the losers table with Mary Jane Paddington, a girl who is herself an outcast and subject of ridiculed by her peers. At first repulsed by Mary Jane, he soon discovers that she is a compassionate friend and strong ally against the cruelty of their classmates. Their friendship, however, only adds fuel to the fire and further agitates the other students. Now not only are they individually persecuted, but together they are targeted for some very malicious and dangerous pranks.

      Little Chicago is told from the point of view of Blacky, the novel’s protagonist. At eleven-years old, Blacky is the epitome of a victim of society. He is neglected by his overworked, depressed, and stressed out mother. He has been sexually abused by his neighbor/his mother’s boyfriend. He has fallen through the cracks of Children’s Services. His requests for help and finally his acting out fall on the deaf ears of his teachers and other trained adults. Even his best friend, Eric Duggan, abandons him and becomes the informant for the school bullies. He is given no counseling and no support from his mother or her friend Wendy Wolf, both trained workers for social services, or for that matter, from any other professionally trained adults. It even seems his school is not informed about what has happened to him. Blacky learns to cope with his situation by suppressing what he is unable to emotionally or psychologically cope with about his abuse. This sometimes leads to a choppy storyline when Blacky blocks out events with which he can not deal. Most readers should quickly be able to pick up on this quirk and be able to fill in some of the missing information and gaps in the storyline. Like Blacky, the reader is also surprised and shocked by sudden revelations and expressions as his unconscious explodes into his conscious without warning.

There are a number of interesting characters in this novel worth noting. Mary Jane Paddington is the school outcast. She is the sanest and most compassionate of Blacky’s classmate. Unfortunately, she is so much a Carrie (ala Stephen King) clone that it is hard not to have certain expectations about her, her eventual fate, and the storyline. His mother is a trained Children Services professional. Although she should be well aware of the needs of a victim of sexual abuse, she seems to make no attempt at providing for these needs in her own son. It is possible however, that Blacky is blocking any memory of receiving any help. His sister Shay has taken on the role as surrogate mother to Blacky. She has been unsuccessfully hospitalized for drugs abuse after a miscarriage and a bout with hepatitis. She is streetwise, but she is still dealing with her own issues involving drugs and prostitution. Blacky’s younger brother Linden aka “Cheedle” is a child prodigy and quite wrapped up in his intellectual pursuits. He has become self-sufficient and has taken on the role as the voice of wisdom for the family and information conduit for Blacky. Blacky’s teachers seem to be in the dark about what has happened to Blacky. Although some of them seem to be alert enough to have picked up on there being something slightly out-of-sync with Blacky. Coach Corcoran and Dr. Lockwood, the school guidance counselor, are particularly insensitive to his pain. Again, this may be the results of their not being told anything or a function of Blacky’s blocked point of view. The male students in the story, Eric Duggan, his former best friend; Robert Kinsella and Bill Mann, the gym class toughs; and Greg and Andy Bauer, the “Crewcut Brothers” are portrayed as one-sided characters. They are cruel and abusive to Blacky and Mary Jane, yet their actions do ring true for young people of their age. 

Adam Rapp is a playwright and author. He was born and raised in Chicago and studied Creative Writing and Psychology at Clarke College. He has been an Artist in Residence at Vassar and Dartmouth. He was the recipient of the Herbert & Patricia Brodkin Scholarship (1997), two Lincoln Center LeComte du Nouy Awards, a fellowship to the Camargo Foundation, the Princess Grace Award for Playwrighting (1999), the Suite Residency with Mabou Mines (2000), the Roger L. Stevens Award from the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays (2000), and the Helen Merrill Award (2001). His plays include Animals and Plants (A.R.T. New Stages), Ghosts in the Cottonwoods (Victory Gardens, Chicago; the 24th Street Theatre, Los Angeles; and the Arcola Theatre, London), Blackbird (the Bush Theatre, London; and the City Theatre, Pittsburgh), Finer Noble Gases (O’Neill Playwrights Conference, and Humana Festival, Louisville), Stone Cold dead Serious (A.R.T., Feb. 2002), Dreams of the Salthorse (Encore Theatre, San Francisco), and Faster (Rattlestick, New York).  Nocturne (2000) was selected as one of the Burns Mantle Ten Best Plays of the 2000-2001 Season. It was produced Off-Broadway (2001) and at the Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival (2002). It received Boston’s Elliot Norton Award for Outstanding New Script and Best New Play by the Independent Reviewers of New England. His novels include Missing the Piano (1994/95 Best Book for Young Adults and 1995 Best Book for Reluctant Readers by the American Library Association), The Buffalo Tree (1997) and The Copper Elephant (2000). He is currently lives in New York City where he is a “Playwright in Residence” at Juilliard.

Little Chicago by Adam Rapp is an interesting book. While it is labeled for “Young Adult” it may be of more interest for young teens and mature pre-teens. While the abuse by Mr. Johnson is not described, there is a description of sex between Blacky and another male. (The description of this incident may be for some young readers and/or offensive to some parents.) I would highly recommend that adults read this book prior to recommending it to young people. This would also be a worthy book to be read by teachers and other professionals working with young people. For the older teen or young adult reader, this book should not pose any problems. I recommend this book with the above caveat.


© 2002 Su Terry

Su Terry: Education: B.A. in History from Sacred Heart University, M.L.S. in Library Science from Southern Connecticut State College, M.R.S. in Religious Studies/Pastoral Counseling from Fairfield University, a M.Div. in Professional Ministry from New Brunswick Theological Seminary, a Certificate in Spirituality/Spiritual Direction from Sacred Heart University. She is a Licensed Minister of the United Church of Christ and an Assistant Professor in Library Science at Dowling College, Long Island, NY. Interests in Mental Health: She is interested in the interplay between psychology, biology, and mysticism. Her current area of research is in the impact of hormonal fluctuation in female Christian mystics.