By Kalisha Buckhanon
Upstate is where New York’s prisons are, and where one of the protagonists in Buckhanon’s affecting first novel spends most of his early adulthood. Living in Harlem during the 1990s, Natasha, 16, and Antonio, 17, are separated when Antonio is arrested for killing his brutal father. His punishment: 10 years upstate. Their reactions to the crisis, as revealed in letters, are fairly predictable: Antonio swears his innocence and demands fidelity, while Natasha finds temporary solace with a boy at her part-time job. Inevitably the letter-writers gain perspective as they grow older: Becoming downright callous toward Antonio, Natasha nabs a scholarship to an elite college; in the meantime, Antonio, who is probably just as bright, struggles not only with the hellishness of prison (where he earns a GED) but with the feeling that he has ruined his life. Because the novel is told in their own voices, in language full of slang and youthful posturing, one feels impatient with the fecklessness of these characters yet more compelled by their later achievements. Clearly this author accomplishes what she sets out to do–creating a realistic love story that’s set against an urban backdrop as gritty as its characters are memorable.