X: A Novel

  • By Ilyasah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon
  • Candlewick Press
  • 384 pp.
  • Reviewed by Keely Cutts
  • March 24, 2015

Famed civil-rights activist Malcolm X comes vividly to life in this rich, immersive tale.

This energetic and powerful novel begins with a bang.

Malcolm Little, future activist and leader Malcolm X, is in trouble. He’s on the run from a man named Archie, and the reader can immediately feel Malcolm’s desperation, his panic. It’s a taste of trouble to come as the narrative shifts focus to cover the events leading to the opening scene.

Instead of a straight chronological order, authors Ilyasah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon jump between key points in Malcolm’s early years, highlighting his complex home life, time in foster care, and new start in Boston. Rather than a slow build, the reader is thrown into Malcolm’s life, much as he is thrown into a world where he struggles to find his place.

What follows is an honest and open account of Malcolm’s teenage years. Shabazz, the daughter of Malcolm X, creates a vivid portrait of his early life based on interviews with family, friends, and neighbors.

In a compelling first-person narrative, we are witness to young Malcolm’s acts of theft and prank-pulling before he heads off to Boston, where he moves deeper into a life lived on the edge. His half-sister Ella encourages him to stay in the safe and secure Sugar Hill, while Malcolm longs for life down in Roxbury where the people feel real, the jazz speaks to his soul, and he can dance the night away.

All of this is an effort to distance himself from his hometown of Lansing, Michigan. The word “home” has lost its meaning since his father was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan and his mother was taken by the state and institutionalized. He is alone in foster care, as his siblings were spread out across multiple foster homes.

His father promised Malcolm he could be whatever he wanted; his mother encouraged her children to learn as much as they could. When faced with a nation that treats him unfairly, brutally, carelessly because of the color of his skin, Malcolm feels the words from his father are a lie and cannot reconcile the promise of a bright future with the limitations places on him by white society.

There is a self-awareness in Malcolm that makes him wonderfully appealing as a character. He keeps making dangerous decisions, but knows there will be consequences. “I am my father’s son. But to be my father’s son means that they will always come for me.”

The restless Malcolm ranges farther, moving from his comfortable neighborhood in Roxbury to Harlem, where he continues his drug and alcohol abuse and digs deeper into a life of crime. He sells drugs, runs numbers, and finally ends up crossing a line. Many readers know the path Malcolm takes: He is sent to prison, where he is able to center his life as he converts to Islam and comes out a powerful advocate and human-rights activist.

Though there is no surprise in Malcolm’s fate, his character is so richly drawn and his actions so understandable that we hope, perhaps, the ending will be different. Of course, it isn’t. It can’t be. His time in prison is what changes him and puts him on his path. But we see how hard and harsh the world is to Malcolm. We see his courage and his longing for understanding, and we hope.

Often, authors of historical fiction become so caught up in research that period detail overwhelms and the characters are lost to the setting. Not in this novel. This is an interactive read, challenging the reader to consider not only Malcolm’s life and circumstances, but the same circumstances faced by black American teenagers today. It is the most powerful type of historical fiction: Not only does it make the reader enter the world of the subject; she enters her own world more fully, too.

The hurdles Malcolm faces — a mother institutionalized for being strong and outspoken; social services intervening with his family; unfair police treatment; an unfair court system — are largely the same today. This books compels us to see where we were, how far we’ve come, and how much work there is still to be done.

Keely Cutts is an MFA candidate at Rosemont College. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Front Porch Review, Crack the Spine, and Inaccurate Realities. She lives in suburban Philadelphia with her wife and two cats.

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