For two years, from the summers of 1987 to 1989, journalist Alex Kotlowitz follows the lives of two young children, Lafeyette and Pharoah Rivers, who live in a public housing complex in Chicago. When Kotlowitz first writes about them, Pharoah is nine and Lafeyette twelve. They live at the Henry Horner Homes (which they usually refer to as “the projects” or “the ghetto”) in an environment marked by constant fear and gang violence. Over the years, the two brothers face near-constant insecurity and emotional trauma, as they are forced to watch their friends die and often protect their own lives, which are also at risk.
Their mother, LaJoe Rivers, has lived at Horner for decades. She moved into the newly built Henry Horner Homes in the 1950s, during a period in which residents had hope on the future and in the community. Even though the public housing complex was built at the outskirts of Chicago, isolated from the central institutions in the city, the entire Horner community learned to organize to protect the well-being of the neighborhood’s residents, fighting for better schools, healthcare, and security. Soon, however, the development of gangs, especially Jimmy Lee’s Conservative Vice Lords, put people’s lives at risk, generating a culture of fear and retribution in which neighbors gradually lost trust in each other. As drug trafficking and gang rivalry intensified, community bonds were destroyed. People learned to retreat into themselves, trusting only their closest family members and friends for care and support.
The evolution of LaJoe’s family life mirrors this general decline. After meeting Paul Rivers at the age of fourteen, LaJoe soon becomes pregnant and, in the space of a few years, gives birth to LaShawn, Paul (“Weasel”), and Terence. She then marries Paul Rivers but soon discovers that her husband has become addicted to drugs. As a result, her marriage crumbles and, from that moment onward, LaJoe singlehandedly takes care of her numerous children. In addition to her husband, her children, too, later disappoint her. All three of them drop out of school, have problems with drugs, and run into trouble with the law. LaShawn becomes addicted to drugs, supporting her habit with occasional prostitution, and Weasel is incarcerated for participating in a burglary.
Of the three children, it is Terence whose life choices most affect LaJoe. The two of them are extraordinarily close until the birth of LaJoe’s younger children, Lafeyette, Pharoah, and the triplets, when Terence begins to feel that his mother is not giving him enough love and attention. In reaction, at the age of nine, Terence leaves the house. A local drug dealer, Charles, adopts him and uses him to sell drugs. Even though both LaJoe and Paul try on various occasions to convince their son to come back, Terence remains involved in a variety of illegal activities throughout his youth. Ultimately, he is sentenced to eight years in prison for his alleged participation in a burglary.
To compensate for these past failures, LaJoe decides to put all her effort and trust into Lafeyette and Pharoah, whom she hopes will not grow up to become like their older siblings. She also relies on twelve-year-old Lafeyette for emotional support, often confiding in him beyond what his young mind can take. Lafeyette worries so much about his family that he takes on a parental role toward his younger siblings, and his desire to protect the ones he loves sometimes expresses itself in overly aggressive ways.
The summer of 1987 proves particularly violent in the neighborhood. Multiple shootings cause the Rivers family to seek refuge in their hallway, far from windows where bullets may pass through. Lafayette’s life changes significantly when his friend Bird Leg dies, as this marks the beginning of what Horner residents call the “death train” in Lafeyette’s life. Bird Leg, a fifteen-year-old boy, who had recently joined the Vice Lords and had become passionate about gang rivalry, is killed at point-blank by a member of the Disciples, a rival gang, during a dispute. Later, at the young boy’s funeral, which takes place at a storefront church away from the neighborhood so that the Disciples will not interrupt the ceremony, Jimmie Lee himself is present. Pharaoh cries during the ceremony, but Lafeyette remains stoic, incapable of expressing his grief. After the funeral, he and his friend James share their conviction that that they might die soon.
Overwhelmed by the violence around them, the two Rivers brothers develop different reactions to the general insecurity of their lives. Pharoah develops a stutter whose intensity is directly related to his fear. Pharoah feel so embarrassed by his stutter that he rarely speaks. Unlike his brother’s visible signs of emotional trauma, Lafeyette begins to hide his emotions. Convinced that life at Horner is unpredictable and that friends can die or turn on him at any moment, he tells his mother that he will no longer have friends, only “associates,” since he does not trust people enough to consider them friends.
Pharoah’s only refuge from the chaos of the neighborhood is school and academia. When he is chosen to participate in the school’s spelling bee, he feels immensely proud. On the day of the contest, however, he becomes overwhelmed by nervous excitement and, because of his stutter, finds himself unable to articulate a word, which leads him to be eliminated. Instead of letting this event discourage him, though, he resolves to work even harder to win next year’s spelling bee. In the meantime, he makes a new friend, Rickey, who is known for getting into fights but gives Pharoah some protection. While Lafeyette initially disapproves of this relationship, fearing that Rickey might be a bad influence for his little brother, he, too, becomes fond of Rickey.
Meanwhile, Terence is arrested for his alleged participation in a robbery, even though he professes his innocence and his entire family believes him. Around the same time, the Public Aid Department retracts LaJoe’s welfare benefits after receiving some information that Paul Rivers sometimes sleeps in her apartment. LaJoe resigns herself to this decision but shares her worries with Lafeyette. Soon, she realizes that she is making her son overly stressed, turning him into what she calls “a twelve-year-old man.”
Some positive developments still bring hope to the Rivers family. At Horner, a young man named Craig Davis sets up turntables in front of the Riverses’ building, encouraging residents to come out and dance, thus providing residents with one of the few moments of freedom and joy that they have ever experienced. Craig impresses Lafeyette with his open attitude and his respect for the young boy’s opinions. More generally, Craig displays a positive attitude toward life, as he is committed to working hard in the hope of one day buying a house far from the projects. He tells Lafeyette to work hard at school and stay away from gangs, and Lafeyette looks up to him. Other exciting events involve LaJoe’s niece Dawn’s graduation from high school, which the children find inspiring, and LaJoe’s successful reapplication for welfare.
Over time, the boys struggle to protect themselves from problems in the neighborhood. As Lafeyette becomes closer to Rickey, he also begins to suffer from the boy’s bad influence. The two of them are caught shoplifting, which marks Lafeyette’s first trouble with the law. At the nearby stadium, where many neighborhood boys try to earn some money by helping people park their cars, Lafeyette suffers from a violent encounter with a policeman, who grabs him and throws him into a puddle for no reason. This causes Lafeyette to become even more suspicious of the police. Pharoah, too, is moved to think about social issues. Reflecting on the inequality between the white stadium goers and himself, he wonders if all black people are poor and live in the projects.
However, Lafeyette’s problems with the police do not end there. He feels most angry against the police and the justice system when Craig Davis is wrongfully killed by a policeman. Craig’s death devastates Lafeyette and marks a turning point in his life. He becomes even more introverted, temperamental, and unwilling to express his emotions. He believes that Craig’s death is deeply unfair and that he, too, could be killed anytime, despite having done nothing wrong. Unfortunately, the Rivers family learns of Craig’s death on the very same day that Pharoah participates in his second spelling bee—in which, after many weeks of hard work, he earns second place. The boy’s happiness and pride, however, is overshadowed by his family’s sadness at Craig’s death.
In the next few weeks, the local manager of the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) discovers a nightmarish scene in the basement, where rotting appliances lie in puddles of water amid excrements and the bodies of dead animals. This situation explains many of the building’s problems and leads the CHA to finally take action and improve residents’ lives. Vincent Lane, the new head of the CHA, tries to regain control over gang-dominated buildings so that he might renovate them and make them more secure.
Despite these encouraging developments, however, the Rivers family receives an additional blow when, one night, at the stadium, Lafeyette is arrested with four other boys for allegedly breaking into a parked truck. Despite insisting that he is innocent, Lafeyette is deemed guilty, along with the four other boys. This episode only fuels his anger at the injustice of life.
In the Epilogue, Alex Kotlowitz describes what has happened in the year since Lafeyette’s arrest. He explains that he has personally helped Lafeyette and Pharoah attend a private school in the area where Pharoah thrives but Lafeyette has struggled to keep up with the workload and, as a result, has had to return to public school. Although Lafeyette has succeeded in graduating from eighth grade, he has also been caught smoking marijuana before school, and LaJoe is worried that he might fall prey to the neighborhood’s bad influences. At Horner, too, the CHA’s success is mitigated by its lack of funds, which keeps it from renovating and securing all the buildings at Horner. The characters’ lives, then, like the future of their neighborhood, remains largely uncertain, vulnerable to the oscillations of chance but also to the positive influence of people’s strong will, determination, and hard work.