I was an adult the first time I volunteered for a presidential campaign. It was in 2008 for Barack Obama. As naïve as it sounds, I felt I was helping America begin to fulfill its promise: to be a place where “all men are created equal.” Fast-forward to today, when America has never seemed farther away from keeping that promise. In a world with so much injustice, how do we maintain hope and a willingness to fight, without burning out, or simply giving in to the easier option of looking the other way?
Marva Sheridan, the heroine of Brandy Colbert’s wonderful new novel, THE VOTING BOOTH (Hyperion, 304 pp., $18.99; ages 12 and up), would tell you that some people don’t have the luxury of turning away. Some fights are existential; to look the other way is to invite ruin or worse.
In many ways, this novel is perfect for the times we’re in. How better to get young people involved in the voting process than with a book set on Election Day featuring two incredibly charming main characters exercising their civic duties while simultaneously falling in love?
The novel is told from alternating perspectives and takes place in a single day. It’s Nov. 3. Marva, who is Black, is thrilled to be voting in her first election. She’s spent the prior months canvassing, text-banking and registering voters.
To say she’s civic-minded would be an understatement. Marva has been interested in politics from age 7, when she informed her second-grade teacher that she wanted to become either secretary of state, an environmental attorney or a Supreme Court justice.
Duke Crenshaw, the mixed-race son of a Black father and a white mother, is not exactly Marva’s opposite, but he’s close. He does have a sense of civic duty and intends to do his part by voting. But voting is all he intends. His main concern for the day is passing his calculus test and drumming with his band — hilariously named Drugstore Sorrow — in their first paying gig.
The pair meet just after Marva casts her vote. She hears Duke being told he isn’t on the list. Marva assumes this is a case of voter suppression, but Duke realizes it may be that he’s registered under his dad’s address in a different district. Marva makes it her responsibility to help Duke find a way to vote before the polls close.
Mission set, the novel begins in earnest. Marva and Duke spend the day getting to know each other and — in some ways — trying to convince each other of their worldviews. Marva wants Duke to understand her passionate activism. Duke wants Marva to understand that it’s sometimes OK to take a break from saving the world. As the day unfolds, the bond between the two deepens. Duke helps Marva contend with her white boyfriend’s decision not to vote. Marva supports Duke as he confronts his parents’ overprotectiveness in the wake of his much more politically active older brother’s death. Both characters are smart and highly opinionated, making for plenty of zippy and infectious dialogue.
In less skilled hands, this premise could easily have become didactic. Fortunately, Colbert is deft at making the political feel truly personal.
There’s a pivotal moment in the book, after a traffic-stop encounter with a Latina cop (Duke is in the passenger seat while Marva runs a yellow light just as it’s turning red), when Duke wonders how many times he’ll “be so lucky,” meaning how many times he’ll escape such an encounter without being killed. Marva tells him it’s issues like these — systemic racial injustices against Black people — that make her care so much about the civic process. She talks of her heroes Bayard Rustin, Diane Nash, Stokely Carmichael and Coretta Scott King, who all risked their lives fighting against racial inequality. She, too, wants to make a difference.
The book truly shines in moments like these. It makes us root for Marva and all those among us who battle to make the world a better place. The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but someone needs to apply the pressure.
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