My initial reaction and concern upon reading the tagline of this book – “The true story of an 11-year-old panhandler, a busy sales executive, and an unlikely meeting with destiny” – was that it would turn out to be a sort of “white saviour” story. Wealthy white women meets young black boy and his life is vastly improved. And while that is sort of the story, the book fortunately avoids leaning to heavily on that aspect.
This true story is told from Laura’s perspective, of the friendship that begins in New York in 1986 when she stops to buy a young panhandler lunch at McDonalds. From there, a relationship develops. Maurice is a young boy, growing up in extreme poverty, surrounded by drug-addicted adults, and living one stop above homelessness. Maurice and Laura begin to meet for dinner every week. While the core of the story is definitely about Maurice and how, through Laura, he begins to be exposed to things he never could have been otherwise – like Thanksgiving dinner with a family around the table or his school lunch in a brown paper bag – Laura’s narrative works hard to emphasize that she also learnt a lot from Maurice.
The book delves into some of Maurice’s family history – the abuse and addiction cycle that so easily traps generations – as well as Laura’s own family and history. She draws a connection between Maurice’s impoverished childhood and her own middle class upbringing with an abusive father. It’s sad and ironic that, in the end, Maurice escapes the cycle of abuse in bringing up his own family while Laura ends up in two different marriages with abusive men.
While the book does lightly focus on some of the concern of Laura’s friends and family about her initial involvement with Maurice, I was surprised that Laura never seemed to consider involving the authorities. If she had thought about it and decided against it, I could maybe understand that but it seems to never cross her mind to call Child Services. Later on, there is a mention that Maurice desperately wanted to stay with his mother but it surprised me that Laura (or any other adult in Maurice’s life, such as his teachers) never considered this might not be the best thing for him.
The book is easy to read and, while not amazingly well-written, engaging. Several of the points felt stretched out or repetitive and the book could easily have been much shorter. In fact, a feature article in a magazine could have told this story just as well. Yet whatever flaws the book has, you have to applaud any one who steps out of their daily life to focus on and help another person.