Twelve-year-old Cole has never met his father. But his mama has piled Cole into her car in Detroit, and she doesn’t plan to let him out till Philadelphia, where she intends to leave him in his father's care.
Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park neighborhood is where his dad Harper lives, along with a run-down, patched-together collection of old cowboys, some kids who need redeeming, and a derelict assortment of horses saved from the meat factory.
Between skipping the last four weeks of school, tagging the school cafeteria, staying out late roaming the streets with friends, Cole has pushed his mother too far. Why else would she drive all night to deposit her only child on his estranged father’s doorstep? She worries that it’s almost to late to save him.
Cole – the protagonist of Ghetto Cowboy, the latest offering from middle-grade novelist G. Neri – thinks he doesn’t need saving. Especially by a dad who’s a cowboy. But his options are used up. Even though Harper can’t decide what to do with this boy he hardly knows, he eventually opens his heart to his son.
As Cole watches the younger street kids muck the stables, groom horses, and work hard for something other than themselves, his heart opens – to a horse. He wonders what it “woulda been like if I grew up this way. Would I be like Harper, all into horses, working in the stables every day…. Would it be any better? Or would I just end up like Smush, some corner boy with a mouth on him?”
An escapade to save the horses proves to Cole what they mean to the neighborhood, and to him. The police round up the horses. The city almost condemns the property, and Cole leads the street kids to make a stand.
For the first time, he’s looked up to for doing the right thing. Cole realizes, “I got me a posse.” He understands what the old timers mean when they say, “It’s the cowboy way.”
Now Cole appreciates what these latter-day black cowboys are doing to help both the neighborhood kids like his cousin Smush and the horses. As Harper explains to his son: “They’re old racehorses that normally get sold off for meat. We pool our money to buy what we can at auction before the slaughterhouse gets ‘em. Then we bring ‘em here so they can live out their days – the kids learn to ride, and we get a few more horses to race with.”
Jesse Joshua Watson’s realistic pencil and graphite wash illustrations scattered throughout the novel combine with Neri's gritty street language to make a powerful story. Neri’s characters learn – and teach – so much more than how to take care of horses. "Ghetto Cowboy" is about finding something so important to you that you never give it up.
The great morality lesson here is not the only beauty of the story. The rhythm of the writing, the smells and sounds of the neighborhood, the developing relationship between a boy and his estranged father add up to an appealing novel, especially for an under-written-for segment of young male readers.
Neri, a novelist known for his books aimed at reading-resistant middle-grade boys, is the winner of the Lee Bennett Hopkins Promising Poet Award for "Chess Rumble" and the recipient of a Coretta Scott King award for "Yummy." Both previous novels also feature young male protagonists in gritty urban settings.
Augusta Scattergood is a Monitor contributor.