“On a hot summer night in the late 1980s, in the Boston neighborhood of Roxbury, a twelve-year-old African-American girl was sitting on a mailbox talking with her friends when she became the innocent victim of gang-related gunfire. Amid public outcry, an immediate manhunt was on to catch the murderer, and a young African-American man was quickly apprehended, charged, and — wrongly — convicted of the crime. Dick Lehr, a former reporter for the Boston Globe’s famous Spotlight Team who worked on this story, brings the case to light once more with Trell, a page-turning novel about the daughter of an imprisoned man who persuades a reporter and a lawyer to help her prove her father’s innocence. What pieces of evidence might have been overlooked? Can they manage to get to the truth before a dangerous character from the neighborhood gets to them?”
Trell: Nothing But The Truth is a difficult book to review. I didn’t hate it, not by a long shot, but I’m not sure I loved it either. I definitely enjoyed it, and it’s a book that intrigued me and certainly held my attention in a lot of ways, but there was something about it that just didn’t quite hit the mark for me.
I think the first issue here is that I hit a bit of a slump mid-way through. That’s by no fault of Lehr or this story, but just a result of the stress and anxiety and general business of day-to-day life. It kicked off to a fairly strong start, diving us head first into our main character’s – Van Trell Taylor – life, giving us insight into the mind of this 14 year old girl as she pushed on through with school work, overbearing teachers, and the struggle of making friends at a new school. For all intents and purposes, Trell is just your average teen. Except, she’s not. Trell is a 14 year old black girl attending a fancy school, stuck in a sea of over privileged white students, her teachers so utterly out of touch, their heads clearly filled with stereotypes and prejudice. Trell is the daughter of Romero Taylor, the man convicted just 13 years prior for the shooting, and subsequent killing, of a young girl. Already, this is an exceptionally important story. It’s a story that focuses on issues that we still see today; the unjust conviction and imprisonment of a young, black man, falsely accused – by white police officers, no less – of a crime he didn’t commit. Because that’s the point of this story; Romero Taylor is innocent, and Trell is adamant she’s going to prove it. And, the kicker here? This story is based upon true events.
Dick Lehr wrote this story, his first attempt at a YA novel, based on a case that he worked on. You see, Lehr is an ex-reporter turned novelist, having previously worked for The Boston Globe. The very same Boston Globe as is featured in this story. With a few details askew – ie names, numbers, and the like – Lehr took to recreating the case of a man, falsely accused, and his family’s attempts – with the help of both a lawyer and reporter willing to expose the truth within the media – to clear his name. Now, I don’t think this is a bad thing, I think it’s an extremely intriguing way to approach such a story. In fact, we’re living in a particularly stark social (and political) climate in which more and more black people are suffering at the hands of the police; staggering numbers of black people are being shot and killed, attacked on the streets, or having their names besmirched by the very people who are sworn in to protect them, to protect us all. With YA books like Dear Martin by Nic Stone, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, American Street by Ibi Zoboi and other such stories, we’ve also had an increase in writers coming forward to create stories that shine a light on the injustice within not only a large portion of the police force (specifically within the States, but no doubt an issue prevalent worldwide), but in countless positions of power. This is something that is completely necessary within the stories we pick up, as well as the ones portrayed across screen, especially when you take into consideration just how raw and honest and real these scenarios, mirroring the acts and horrors that the black community – as well, of course, as other such minorities – face in real life. What Lehr is doing here is incredibly important, drawing attention to a real case – picking up this book certainly inspired me to look into the original case – while telling it not from his own perspective, as a privileged white man, but from that of a young, black girl.
“I was nervous because in my experience police did more wrong than right.”
Right from the off, we see Trell’s struggles as a young girl. Every day struggles that we all face, and ones that the more privileged of us can’t even begin to understand. She’s set apart from her schoolmates, purely for the colour of her skin. Her teachers are ignorant, wilfully so, and immediately place labels and stereotypes on her, judging her without a moment’s notice, never once considering how much truth lies within their own assumptions. Trell, to them, is a thug. She’s a young, smart girl with a lot of promise, for sure, but they see her as somebody living in a dangerous neighbourhood, with absentee parents, in an environment surrounded by drugs and violence; not once do they actually stop to consider the damage they’re doing by creating such stereotypes, nor do they listen when she tries to own her truth and be herself. The fact that Lehr had no issue in immediately exploring these kind of dynamics is a step in the right direction, I must say. One of my biggest fears when picking up this book was that he, as an older man – and white one at that – wouldn’t be able to fully grasp the mind of a 14 year old, no less a black girl. He and Trell have nothing in common, after all. And, the truth is? Sometimes he excelled, portraying her in a way that was both convincing and refreshing, and other times he didn’t quite hit the mark. And I think that’s one of this book’s biggest downfalls, however major or minor you perceive these inconsistencies. There are times when I felt that I was standing alongside Trell – myself, of course, just another person lost in a crowd, Trell feeling alone in a sea of white – watching her process her surroundings, the people in her life, her circumstances. From early on she is seen quoting one of her favourite poems by Langston Hughes. The poem in question, To Certain Intellectuals, goes as follows;
“You are no friend of mine
For I am poor,
Ignorant and slow, –
Not your kind.
Have told me so, –
No friend of mine.”
Trell lists this poem as being her favourite, not merely for the artistry behind Hughes’ work, but because she found herself within is words. It’s a perfect contrast of the way that society, even now, views black people, how intentions may seem good, but words and actions can often show something different. Trell found herself relating to these words when looked down upon and treated as something lesser, something in need of saving, when dealing with her white peers and teachers.
That’s an example, of course, in some of the ways that Lehr shone. Other ways, not so much. And I understand that it’s hard, certainly. I am neither 14 years old, nor am I black, and so i’m not entirely authorised on talking about what is or isn’t an accurate portrayal of a life that I don’t lead. However, I do think that Lehr’s writing fell flat in places, and especially after the introduction of Clemens Bittner, the reporter, Lehr’s very own fictional counterpart. As much as I adored the dynamic between Bittner and Trell – perhaps one of my favourite aspects, in fact – I found that, while we were still viewing things from Trell’s POV, that it started to feel as though we were, in fact, viewing thing from Lehr’s viewpoint, and so in turn Bittner’s. I think a large portion of this came down to the lingo used throughout the book. There were times when Trell felt very much like a 14 year old girl, and other times where she used words and phrases that I felt fell straight from the mouth of someone older, wise, and more experienced. At times, this worked well; We get a fun dynamic between the two, Trell acting as his right hand, so to speak, a journalist-in-training as he shows her the ropes, using the case as a way to educate as well as eradicate, often using their successes (as well as their failures) as a tool to teach and prepare Trell for other such scenarios, and even informing her on some of the harder, more confusing aspects, such as journalistic and law-related terminology that might not be quite as familiar to the untrained ear. Indeed, a lot of the terms would have been lost on me too, had they not been explained by Bittner himself. Other times, however, we found ourselves in the middle of a scene where just about everybody was throwing around language that didn’t quite seem consistent with their character, and I think that’s an indication of Lehr’s own lack of experience in switching from Journalist to Author. Such as it was, there were times where I felt the writing was a little too formulaic for my tastes, and could have done with flowing a little smoother in places.
Moving past Lehr’s portrayal of characters, the story itself was compelling. I found myself immediately endeared to Trell and her family, and eager to see them given their happy ending, the freedom that her father deserved, and a chance at a life that they’d long been denied. The dynamic between both Trell and her mother, and Trell and her father, was engaging in a way that felt realistic. Though there was a lot of love between all three of them, it was never without merit. We see the love shared between Trell’s parents, though very rarely the negative side, always shown from Trell’s own perspective, a brief glimpse into her parents relationship during the small window of time that the three of them get to spend together. We also see the cracks beneath the surface when it comes to her own relationships with the two of them. After all, Trell is just a teenager, and it’s only natural for teenagers to find themselves bickering and fighting with their parents, but in this story we get a new look into such dynamics, through the eyes of a young girl living through a very tricky scenario altogether. Trell’s mother reprimands her countless times throughout the book; whether it be for her laziness, her attitude, or for disobeying orders. It’s normal familial behaviour, but with the added weight of their circumstances. On top of that, we see and we feel Trell’s doubt, the days where she questions her father’s decency, his morality, and how that shift in her own perception impacts their relationship. In this aspect, I felt like Lehr created a really wonderful, powerful dynamic, that only had me all the more eager to see the three of them finally reunited, and the case completed.
There were moments throughout the book where I felt certain characters could have been fleshed out further, with characters like Nora sinking into the background a little – despite being Romero’s lawyer, and being detrimental to the case – while Bittner was given more of the limelight, and a backstory of his own. On top of this, I felt as though it lost a little speed in the middle, the further and further they got into the case, and I found myself losing hope that we’d ever reach a conclusion. While I felt like the premise of the story was supposed to be about bringing Bittner on, gathering evidence, and the four of them – Trell, her mother, Nora, and Bittner – working together to get their story into the papers, bringing attention to Romero’s case, I found myself with 60 pages to go and still not a single article had been written. This, for me, was a little disappointing, and I began to wonder how Lehr was going to wrap it up at all. However, credit where it’s due, Lehr managed to gather up every piece of the puzzle and make sense of it all by the time it reached its climax. It all seemed to fit together perfectly by the last page, and I even found myself a little emotional once I reached the last few pages of the story.
Overall, I wouldn’t say this was the perfect book, but I did enjoy it, and I found Trell to be a compelling character all the same. Knowing that the book was inspired by true events, and that things like this are still happening even today, with the back community being constantly villainised within the media and by the police force, it’s refreshing to know that people aren’t afraid to keep writing and telling these stories.
I think, as of right now, my official rating is probably somewhere around the 3.5 mark (if goodreads half ratings were a thing!) and i’m definitely glad that I picked it up.