Random Family : Love, Drugs, Trouble, And Coming Of Age In The Bronx / Adrian LeBlanc

Random Family is a work of journalistic reporting, but it could easily be mistaken as a novel. It reminded me of Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers. In both works, the authors are voyeurs, using a “fly on the wall” approach, with the reporter nowhere evident in the unfolding story.

Published in 2004, Random Family immerses the reader in South Bronx’s ghetto area. LeBlanc focuses on two Puerto Rican women and their families during the 1980s and 1990s. Jessica and Coco are both adolescents when first introduced. However, in a neighborhood plagued by gang violence, rampant drug use, and desperate poverty, children grow up fast. Before the girls reach eighteen, they find themselves mothers. And reaching age twenty-three, with no husbands and several children by different fathers, they are hopelessly trapped in the area’s crumbling housing projects. Jessica ends up getting involved with a drug kingpin and eventually spends a good number of years in prison.

The harsh reality of life spent beneath the poverty line may be a familiar topic for most readers. But by focusing on these two families, LeBlanc puts human faces to the statistics and headlines. Limited by their lack of good education and their poor spending habits, neither Jessica nor Coco has the wherewithal to better herself. Time and again, despite their best intentions, they make the same errors of judgment. Yet while far from perfect, both are loving mothers, and do their best to protect their children from the dark influences of their environment. This book shows how extended families continually, while having next to nothing themselves, generously help out other relatives and friends in even more desperate straits.

LeBlanc spent eleven years chronicling the lives of these individuals, and the detail she presents is incredible. So much so that I could not help but wonder if some of the thoughts and conversations presented were created out of whole cloth. That doubt aside, Random Families is an engrossing read from beginning to end, albeit a sobering one. Still, LeBlanc offers no solution as to how these families might escape from the ghetto’s grip. Having presented the evidence, she leaves the problem for society to solve.

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