The plot of Pamela N. Harris’s debut novel When You Look Like Us revolves around the life of sixteen-year-old Jay Murphy, his sister Nicole (Nic), and his grandmother Marie Murphy (MiMi). MiMi’s hands are “badges of honor, proof of hard work” (56), and Jay looks forward to the day when she can rest them. He vows that “MiMi is going to retire in Florida, or wherever else she wants to” (17) once he builds her nest egg as repayment for her sacrifices.

The family lives in Newport News, Virginia, in a housing project called the Ducts. Despite what other people might think, Jay is living his life to prove that not everyone from the Ducts is on a fast track to a rap sheet. Even though people like Javon Hockaday—a drug-dealer who does his slinging of bliss, crinkle, and other drugs du jour right under the noses of the security guards—live in the neighborhood, Jay doesn’t want his zip code to determine his future.  Furthermore, a part of Jay believes Javon may have gone into the business to give “a big ol’ middle finger to the system that gives the side eye to guys who look like us” (40).

Still, Jay’s efforts to be responsible, to be the “man of the house,” begin to weigh on him. His girlfriend Camilla Vargas cautions him about the dangers of writing someone else’s essays, and the teachers at Youngs Mill High School are pressuring Jay to keep up his grades, enroll in extracurriculars, prepare for the SAT, and get college-ready.

These desires are complicated by conditions in Jay’s life since he’s dealing with his dad’s death from cancer, a mom in prison, a missing sister, and a grandmother with high blood pressure. Jay wants nothing more than to “pay back” his grandmother for the monetary investment she took on during her retirement years to raise her grandchildren.  “After a Google search, CNN [revealed] that it costs about fourteen grand a year to raise a child” (17).

Despite his zip code, lack of money, and skin color, Jay is intent on finding his missing sister who has recently begun to show signs of bliss addiction. Riley Palmer, his Sunday School teaching partner, joins him in his sleuthing mission. The mystery takes them down some dangerous paths, and Jay learns that “when you try to right [some] wrongs, you [often] add a couple of more wrongs along the way” (157).

Jay also learns how friends can be like family if we give them the gift of trust and how doing better means taking advantage of every opportunity, rather than drawing inaccurate conclusions clouded by anger or discolored by assumption.

  • Posted by Donna

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