Published Online: November 10, 2006
Published in Print: December 1, 2006, as Book Reviews
Book Review


A Turbulent, Triumphant Year With an Inner-City Debate Squad

by Joe Miller, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 480 pages, $26)
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You don’t need much imagination to see this book as a movie. It has all the ingredients to warm the hearts of an audience. Picture Stand and Deliver meets Hoosiers.

Reporter Joe Miller followed Kansas City Central High School’s debate team through the 2002-03 season, which ended, to the surprise of many, with a top-10 finish at the national championship in Atlanta. Miller brings to the story not only a novelist’s eye for detail and a historian’s grasp of context, but also great empathy. He got so caught up in the lives and struggles of the young black debaters from the inner city that he ultimately abandoned journalistic detachment to become their friend and mentor.

Readers are likely to be similarly moved. Central is, as Miller describes it, “little more than a dangerous day care for teens.” Its neighborhood unemployment rate is 42 percent. Debate represents the best and maybe only hope that Ebony, Marcus, Brandon, and other team members have of ever escaping poverty and neglect—and of making something of themselves.

Meanwhile, their coach, Jane Rinehart, faces her own set of problems. To take the team to tournaments, she must overcome institutional inertia, lack of resources, and plain old administrative incompetence. And at the tournaments, she must deal with the the debate community’s subtle racism. It’s a constant fight, and though she often feels like giving up, the kids keep her going. “I owe my life to her,” one of them says.

Miller has written a big, sprawling book, with almost as many characters and philosophical asides as a 19th-century Russian novel. Not that it isn’t exciting—the scenes describing Central in face-to-face showdowns with snotty private schools may have you leaping ahead to find out what happens. But despite the team’s miraculous finish at the nationals, we shouldn’t forget an important fact: In a truly free and equal society, it wouldn’t seem to be a miracle when black kids succeed.

Vol. 18, Issue 03, Page 45

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