Melissa Valentine’s The Names of All The Flowers is dedicated to her late older brother, Junior. The memoir serves a devastating reminder that gun violence statistics refer to people (often young men of color) who are loved by many and sometimes suffocated by deep-rooted, systemic challenges in the United States.
In 1990’s Oakland, young Melissa and Junior are two of six children born to a white Quaker man and a Black woman from the deep South. Valentine grips readers from the beginning with prose that sings: “Oakland is home. It is where I was born. It is where I live. Home is where I live and where your heart is supposed to be. Oakland is graffiti and blood-stained cement; it is redwoods and eucalyptus trees; it is rolling hills and the silver, undulating San Francisco Bay that reminds you that you are on the edge, that you are small” (17). She often lingers in a child-like present tense POV; for example, Valentine writes, “I’ve waited all morning for the sun to come out and am celebrating its arrival on the front steps with my dolls. The front door to our house bursts open. A gap-toothed, oversunned Junior fires from it” (18). Here, she drops the reader into the story at an age where she is innocent and deeply admires her older brother, who is still a young boy himself.
As Valentine gets older, she floats in and out of the naive narrator voice. She begins to notice things about her older brother, writing, “Doing bad things gets you something like attention. Junior had always been recalcitrant––it is his way––but there had been a subtle shift in him since he started middle school” ( Valentine 44). What starts as stealing snacks from neighbors grows into Junior erecting a tough exterior after he starts getting bullied at school. As the incidents grow more intense, his parents try to keep him safe, shuffling him from school to school, hoping that he will land in a better, safer environment. After a violent beating leaves him with bruised ribs, eyes, and a limp, Junior tells his sister he plans to fight back. Valentine’s narrator begins to understand her brother’s situation, yet worries about his safety. She writes, “This is social warfare. This is high school. This is becoming a man. I can feel the fervor in his words, but also the split: my soft brother Junior and the Junior who must survive. Not fighting is not an option. But how will he win against all those boys?” ( Valentine 83). Here, the reader can feel Valentine maturing as she begins to piece together what it means for her brother to be teetering on the edge between boy and man.
Valentine artfully uses time to structure the book in a way that lets the reader know right from the first page that Junior won’t make it to adulthood, “I see my brother Junior as if he were alive before me. I see him everywhere” (7). By including an introduction that begins in the relative present, she avoids all tropes that might lure the reader into turning pages just to know if Junior will make it or not. She gives away nearly the whole synopsis by page five.
So why keep reading?
Because, twenty years after her brother is killed, gun violence is still rampant in the United States, taking lives senselessly. As I sit here, writing this in Harlem, there have been over 400 shootings in Manhattan this year, including three separate incidents in one weekend: a 15-year-old boy playing basketball in Riverbank State Park and a 5-year-old girl sitting in a parked car in the Bronx, outside a vigil for her late 26-year-old neighbor––who had also been shot at the same location just one day prior.
The Names of All the Flowers uses Junior’s story to force the reader to think critically about gun violence and the school-to-prison pipeline, but it is more than a political statement. In Valentine’s words, “This book is an ode to our collective grief and trauma. It deserves to have a name. It deserves discussion…Burying young people should not be so normal. And yet, we all touch it. We are deeply hurt by it. This book is for all who have touched this and all who suffer in silent trauma and grief either directly or indirectly. Therefore, this book is for all of us” (9).
The book is in intimate portrayal of a boy and a family broken by the very systems meant to protect them.
The Names of All The Flowers is available at The Feminist Press
Heather Domenicis (she/her) is an Upper Manhattan based writer and editor moonlighting at a tech startup. She holds an MFA in Creative Non-Fiction from The New School and her words appear in Hobart, JAKE, and [sub]liminal. Born in a jail, she is writing a memoir about all that comes with that. She sometimes tweets @heatherlynnd11.
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