Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos — Donald Trump’s wealthy education czarina — just loves charter schools. Ostensibly, charter schools are an effort to improve opportunities and enhance choices for students of all ethnicities and economic brackets, but they have hardly lived up to the hype. In DeVos’ home state of Michigan, the charter movement has proven disastrous for Detroit and its student population, mostly all children of color. In the course of dumping millions into the coffers of that state’s Republican Party, DeVos and her allies have attempted to wrest schools out of public hands and into the labyrinthine clutches of for-profit businesses.
The controversy over charter schools forms a backdrop for the intriguing new mystery by local author Dorothy Van Soest. In “Death Unchartered” she reprises her two engaging protagonists—Sylvia Jensen and J.B. Harrell — first featured in 2015’s “At the Center.” Sylvia is a retired social worker animated by an enduring passion for justice. The younger J.B. is an investigative reporter, who with his good looks and stylish suits, could model on the side for GQ magazine. Initially, their relationship got off to a rocky start. Now friends, they become gradually embroiled in an unexpected case that traverses the decades.
Throughout the plot, years ebb and flow between 1968 and 2006. In the late 1960s, the youthful Sylvia is an idealist married to a decent man named Frank Waters, who is a seminarian doing an internship under the auspices of a Black pastor in the Bronx. From the Midwest, Sylvia and her husband stand out, visible White residents in an impoverished Black and Puerto Rican neighborhood. With her requirements met successfully, Sylvia is about to enter the halls of P.S. 457, where she will take on the duties of third-grade teacher. She has concluded “that there was nothing romantic about poverty, and nothing honorable about living in its midst when you had a choice.” Soon the novice teacher finds herself confronted with exigent challenges for which her privileged life has left her unprepared. A citywide teacher strike erupts pitting mostly White rank-and-file staff against communities of color and their children. Sylvia is smacked with complex and tumultuous urban realities of the time.
Pan to 2006: In the Midwest city of Monrow, there is contention over charter schools. Some in the Native American community are promulgating the charter idea as offering a way out of the public school system in which Native kids perennially underperform. A demonstration is underway in opposition to the concept, especially since the mayor plans to turn over all the municipality’s schools to a private corporation with a national reach known as CSCH. Sylvia is present, wearing a button declaring “Save Our Public Schools” and carrying a sign urging “Stop Corporate Greed.” Reporter J.B. is covering the event. To Sylvia he says, “Some charter schools involve people with good intentions who want to address the identified racial inequities.” She rejoins, “And some involve people who are more than willing to exploit the situation.”
They repair to a coffee shop. Sylvia comes across an article in The New York Times about a child’s decomposed body discovered on site of an old elementary school in the Bronx that is being demolished. That was her school. A new facility will be erected —a charter school — sponsored by CSCH. The same outfit slated to make inroads into Monrow. Sylvia’s mind is flooded by the image of a lovable 8-year-old Black boy, her student Markus LeMeur. He disappeared in the fall of 1968. She is visibly shaken. After scanning the article J.B. says: “Sylvia, you know who the dead boy is, don’t you?”
The duo decides to travel to New York. J.B. will dig into the venal veiled workings of CSCH. Sylvia desires a renewed connection with Markus’ older sister. She is driven to find out if Markus might be alive, and that the discovered remains are those of some other forgotten child. Sylvia has cherished memories of this boy, his sister and their devoted grandmother since she and her then-husband left the Bronx years ago. Desperate to rekindle their relationship, she tracks down the sister and will hopefully learn the truth about the fate of Markus.
Van Soest is a former dean of the UW School of Social Work. She remains immersed in the ongoing struggle for peace and justice. In a recent interview, Van Soest discusses the resonance current social and political issues have with 1968’s Poor People’s Campaign, organized by Martin Luther King Jr., which carried on for a time after his assassination. Today, a New Poor People’s Campaign has been initiated to inspire citizens to embrace a “Moral Revival.” As an avid participant in this new movement, Van Soest states there are five deep pathologies infecting our nation: “systemic racism, systemic poverty and inequality, ecological devastation, war economy and militarism, and a distorted nationalist narrative and agenda.” True to her 50 years of activism, Van Soest urges fellow Americans to become involved in this fresh campaign for sorely needed progressive change.
“Death, Unchartered” is an intense tale. It will draw in readers, be they mystery hounds or not.
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