Kwame Mbalia's TRISTAN STRONG PUNCHES A HOLE IN THE SKY -- Jen's Review
Thanks to Partner NetGalley for the digital ARC of Kwame Mbalia’s Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky in exchange for an honest review. The book released Tuesday, October 15.
Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky begins with Rick Riordan’s introduction asking “Can you imagine what it would be like if you could find a book that wove the whole brilliant, beautiful tapestry of West African and African American legend into one magical world?” (loc. 48). This, of course, is that novel. Kwame Mbalia’s middle-grade book is a gorgeous, exciting, moving account of Tristan Strong’s discovery of another world, one where John Henry, Brer Fox, and Gum Baby join together to fight the Fetterlings, manacle-like creatures that threaten the people of MidPass. Mbalia threads allusions to African-American history throughout the novel, providing threats that have haunted black history into the present.
Tristan is the third generation of his family to pursue boxing, so when his first bout ends in failure, he faces both his own disappointment as well as the disapproval of his father and grandfather. Almost immediately, Tristan’s parents decide that he should spend the summer with his grandparents. Though he has conflicted feelings about his granddad, who is tough on him, but he is quite fond of Nana, who has built a strong relationship with Tristan infused with storytelling.Tristan also shared a love for stories with his friend Eddie, whose death he is still mourning and blames himself for. Tristan holds tight to Eddie’s journal, which contains the West African and African-American stories that mean so much to both of them. It’s here that the magic of the novel begins: Tristan has known since he received the journal that there’s something odd about it (for starters, it glows!).
Tristant Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky centers on stories, and it establishes that focus early as Tristan tells his tale directly to the reader:
“They didn’t want to hear the rest . . . “Oh, you do? “Hmm. “Well, what if I told you that I went to war over my best friend’s glowing journal? . . . Would you believe me?” (loc. 72).
Naming is also important. Tristan constantly bemoans the inappropriateness of having “Strong” as a last name when he considers himself to be a coward, weak, a failure. He knows that being a Strong means he’s expected to be brave and to work hard, but he’s not sure he can live up to those expectations. Tristan and the other characters in the book constantly remind each other to be careful with names and with stories because “stories are powerful magic” (loc. 656).They avoid saying their enemies’ names whenever possible so as not to evoke them, and Tristan comes to use stories as a weapon in his arsenal that is stronger even than his fists.
Tristan’s journey to mythological MidPass begins when Gum Baby, “a doll Anansi used to trap an African fairy while he was on a quest” (loc. 293), steals Eddie’s journal, and Tristan pursues her. Their battle ultimately ends in the midst of the Bottle Trees on his grandparents’ farm when Tristan, in an attempt to retrieve the journal, punches one of the bottles and unleashes Uncle C, a demon, though a hole that joins the ground under his feet and the sky of MidPass. Tristan and Gum Baby fall through the hole Tristan has made into a mythological world, and they immediately have to escape bone ships and the threat of the Maafa preying upon the Midfolk. He meets a brave young woman named Ayanna and legendary gods like Brer Fox and John Henry who help him understand the seriousness of the situation.
There’s so much to love here. Of course the mythology, and particularly stories that we (or at least I) aren’t as familiar with, is a big draw. But watching Tristan’s very real personal journey—his consideration of what bravery means, of when violence is appropriate, of what it means to know one’s story—is as compelling as the focus on the gods. Tristan is still trying to reconcile what has happened in the reality of his life back home, where he’s seeing a counselor who talks to him about not “hid[ing] from [his] fears.” Mr. Richardson says, “we have to be able to talk about them, or else they’ll fester like poison, eating us from the inside” (loc. 873). We see similar wisdom from the legendary figures Tristan meets: “Brer Fox told me we can’t harp on past mistakes” (loc. 884). As Tristan begins to reconcile the lessons of these two worlds, his confidence and agency grow.
Watching Tristan contend with symbols of slavery—the Fetterlings, Brand Flies, and bone ships, among others—is a powerful thread through the novel. For Tristan, considering that past has been a part of life, instilled by Nana, who reminds him that “A lot of times . . . little facts get smudged out of the history books. If you gon’ tell a story, you better be sure you’re telling the right one” (loc. 959). It’s in MidPass that Tristan learns to apply so many of the lessons his Nana and Eddie taught him, where the ideas that seemed abstract take on a concrete and immediate urgency. Kwame Mbalia here unites intention and execution in the fabulous Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky.