For my next read, I decided to start on my Clear the Shelves challenge and just pick something I already owned that I felt like reading. I was in the mood for some hard-hitting young adult contemporary, so I selected Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson. I picked this up randomly at a bookstore ages ago based on the intriguing title and summary on the back cover. This seemed like just the kind of gritty, emotional read I was looking for, so I was excited to dive in.
The plot follows Mary B. Addison, a sixteen year old girl living in a group home. She was recently released from prison after serving a manslaughter sentence for allegedly killing an infant that her mother was babysitting when she was just nine years old. Mary never confessed to the crime; in fact, she refused to even speak about the incident when questioned by the police and a series of psychologists. The testimony of her mother combined with circumstantial evidence was enough to convict her, however, and she's spent the last seven years of her life in prison.
The group home she was released to isn't much better than being behind bars. The other girls that live there are violent and aggressive, and the adults who are supposed to care for her are abusive and neglectful. Mary is in constant fear for her safety, but she also has some small hopes for the future. She is very smart, and has been studying hard for the SATs. She has a secret boyfriend at the nursing home where she does community service that she loves deeply, and she hopes to go to college and find herself a good job and living situation once she turns 18. Her plans are thrown into disarray, however, when she becomes pregnant with her boyfriend's baby.
She desperately wants to raise her child, but she knows that she won't be able to in her group home. As she is a ward of the state, her baby is also a ward of the state and will be taken away from her when it is born. Her only chance is to get herself exonerated for her crimes and get emancipated. In order to do that though, she must reveal what really happened to that baby that was killed seven years ago and reopen all the painful wounds of her past.
I ended up liking this book, but I really wanted to like it a little bit more than I did. One aspect I did enjoy was how Jackson wrote realistically and graphically about the issues Mary was facing in the system. Her life in the group home is cruel and brutal. There's cursing, violence, and endless abuse, and Jackson didn't soften anything for her young adult audience. At times, it almost seemed like the negativity was over the top, or that Mary was enduring an unrealistic amount of hardships, but I suspect that's my privilege speaking. I know from teaching that there are some children that deal with trauma on a constant basis and that group homes are often nightmarish experiences. While's Mary's experience felt overwhelmingly bad, I think it probably was somewhat realistic. It was often difficult to read this book, but that is to its credit. Jackson did a good job showing the harsh realities that kids in the system go through.
Another aspect of the novel that I appreciated was how Jackson included an exploration of race in the story. Mary is black and the baby she was accused of murdering was white, and this difference played a big part in the public perception of her case. The public was calling for her to be tried as an adult and calling her a murderer when she was only nine years old, and Jackson isn't shy about implying that the reason she ends up facing such harsh criticisms and punishments is due, at least in part, to the color of her skin. While any crime involving the death of an infant would be very serious and anger the public, we know data shows that black teens are over-represented in the criminal justice systems and tend to receive less benefit of the doubt and harsher punishments than white teens. In Mary's case, she was successfully prosecuted on very little evidence, and her seemingly clear mental health issues were ignored, pointing to racial bias in the system. I was glad Jackson included these elements in the story as it made it feel more relevant and gave the reader something to think about.
Something I didn't like so much was Mary's boyfriend in the story. He's got his own difficult past, and by the time Mary knows all of it, I think she forgives him a bit too easily. The way Jackson depicts him is too sympathetic and does not provide a particularly good or meaningful message to her young adult readers. Also, a large part of the story deals with Mary's fears about the age difference between her and her boyfriend. At the start of the story, she is fifteen and turns sixteen almost immediately. He is eighteen. Throughout the book, she makes a lot of decisions out of a desire to protect him, as if their relationship is illegal. In New York, where the story is set, it would definitely not be illegal. They have a "close in age exemption" there, so there was nothing wrong with them being together (even though an eighteen year old sniffing around a fifteen year old gives me the creeps). As a legal adult, I assume he would have rights to their child if the state wanted to take it away from Mary. However, if he could have taken custody of their baby when it was born, the whole story wouldn't have worked. I suppose that's a plot hole.
I also didn't like the ending very much. Jackson was going for a big twist, but I don't feel like enough clues were woven into the text along the way to make the twist successful. If felt too abrupt and didn't match up the the prior behavior of the characters. I thought that too many of the plot events were left hazy too. I wanted a clearer picture of what really happened in Mary's past and I never got it. I can't go into more detail without spoiling major plot points, but I feel like the ending placed the delivery of a twist over the delivery of a deeper message to readers, and it was kind of a shame.
Despite those issues though, this was still a compelling novel and I do think it was worth reading. It shined a light onto a portion of society that is often ignored or vilified and brought up a lot of interesting things to think about. It fell short of being a really meaningful read in the end though, as Jackson's final twist really changed the trajectory of the story. I have another book by Jackson on my shelves, Monday's Not Coming, and I'm interested to see if I will like the construction of that one any better. I don't think I'll be rereading Allegedly, so I will be donating it. That makes this the first book cleared from my shelves for my challenge this year.