Ordinary Hazards: A Memoir

Ordinary Hazards - A Memoir

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Book Review

Early in life, Nikki found that the power of words helped her process the pain of being separated from her beloved sister while dealing with a schizophrenic mother, sexual abuse, and gang-filled neighborhoods. Words were her solace, a path towards the grace of God and a way through the hazards of her life.

Plot Summary

Young Nikki has a difficult life. She started journaling at the age of 6 to deal with the trauma of her parent’s divorce and her own feelings of abandonment. She then goes in and out of foster care. And then, when she’s reunited with her mother, Nikki deals with the sexual abuse of her stepfather.

Finally, she and her mother set off on their own, even though Nikki’s mom continues to struggle with paranoid schizophrenia. In addition, they live in poor neighborhoods filled with gangs that want Nikki to join or suffer if she doesn’t. And, of course, changing schools so often that she can hardly remember each one makes it difficult to form friendships and continue her education.

Yet, some bright points in Nikki’s life help expel some of the darkness she has to deal with. First, there’s the love and encouragement from her older sister, Carol. They’re separated for a while, but Carol consistently supports Nikki and helps her whenever she can. Nikki’s father then becomes more stable when he leaves gambling behind. And he becomes a strong supporter of her interest in writing and the arts.

Nikki also finds solace in the Church, which she finds through a kind foster family. She continues her faith journey through the many moves and heartaches. A demanding but encouraging teacher and a few exceptional friends help Nikki become an accomplished adult.

Christian Beliefs

While it is not a significant part of the book, Nikki does talk about God throughout the whole story, from being very young and seeing bright spots as angels to pouring out her grief and anger to God in her poetry.

A cruel babysitter is referred to as a demon, and Nikki sees Satan’s influence in the drinking and abusive actions of her stepfather.

Nikki loves to sing out loud to God. And she continues to enjoy being in church when she is able in her later years. Nikki does not share a glamorized view of being a Christian, but a deep, earnest dependence on Him. She talks about her struggle with forgiveness a couple of times. Yet she believes that God continues to press forgiveness on her because anger is “getting in the way of her dreams.” And when her friend asks how she can believe in God with the horrors she’s experienced, she says, “How can I not? If it weren’t for Him, I wouldn’t even be here. I’d either be in prison or the grave.” Nikki gives credit to the God of Grace who “brought us safely through.”

Other Belief Systems

The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran—a book that embraces the spirituality of Christian, Jewish and Muslim teachings—is briefly mentioned as one of Nikki’s favorite books.

Authority Roles

The most problematic authority figure in Nikki’s life is her mom. Because of the woman’s mental health issues and struggle with alcoholism, she often abandons Nikki or chooses to be blind to the things (and people) assaulting her. This starts with a babysitter who locks Nikki and her sister in a closet, and even though Carol tells on the babysitter, their mom doesn’t believe it until later. This blind eye also means that Nikki is totally on her own in dealing with neighborhood bullies and the sexual advances of her stepfather.

Because of that neglect, Nikki and her sister go to foster care. They plead with their grandmother to take them in, but she responds that she has already raised her kids and then allows them to be placed in foster care. Even though she is heartbroken because of being separated from her sister, Nikki is placed with a good foster family that introduced Nikki to church. She considers the younger boys of the family her brothers to this day.

A psychologist assigned to Nikki is overheard saying that her case is hopeless.

Nikki’s biological father is mainly out of the picture due to gambling problems at the beginning of her life. However, he eventually makes better choices and gains some consistency in his life, which opens the door to Nikki and her sister spending some healing time with him. He encourages Nikki to write and Carol to sing, and he purposefully exposes Nikki to celebrated Black artists in an effort to help her see the possibilities in life. In those years he is a bright spot and a kindred spirit. And when he dies in a tragic car accident toward the end of Nikki’s teen years, Nikki feels the loss profoundly.

Profanity & Violence

There is a smattering of profanity—including uses of the s-word, “h—,” “d–n” and “b–tard”—that Nikki records others saying and then later uses herself. This includes the n-word used as a racial slur.

Nikki’s mother struggles with schizophrenia, which was made much worse by her alcoholism. She often drinks until she passes out. Nikki tries to get her mom to stop drinking, including pouring out all the alcohol, but eventually, her mother goes back to drinking even after several visits to the hospital.

The neighborhoods they live in are dangerous and usually have gangs fighting over territory. Nikki never joins a gang but is bullied by several, including being in a knife fight and held down while someone burns her with a cigarette. Nikki learns to avoid most of the gang members, spending lots of time in the library; however, when one bully pushes her too far, it ends in a fist fight where Nikki does a lot of damage to another girl. Nikki realizes she has a lot of anger inside and works to keep it from being a driving force in her life.

Sexual Content

Since Ordinary Hazards chronicles Nikki’s young life, we read about her girl body changing into a woman’s body. This includes her mother laughing at her because of her surprise about her period, her distaste for her body’s changes and the notice of men looking at her sexually. Her stepfather was one of the men who looked at and touched her inappropriately. He holds her down and forces oral sex on her, knowing Nikki’s mom will not respond to her cries for help.

Discussion Topics

It is mentioned on this book’s cover that the story within will “heal hearts.” In what ways can honesty about our own story heal hearts? Do you have to have lived through the same things as Nikki to find healing in her words?

Nikki mentions a high school English teacher that gave her a B grade—a less-than-perfect grade that she never received. Nikki is incensed until she realizes that the teacher holds her to a higher standard than others because she believes in her. Has anyone ever done that for you? Was that strong belief helpful? In what ways?

Get free discussion question for books at focusonthefamily.com/magazine/thriving-family-book-discussion-questions.

Additional Comments

Ordinary Hazards: A Memoir is an award-winning book that exposes young readers not only to a young girl’s struggles, but the racial conflicts in the world around her. There are several references to Nikki’s skin color and its effects on her: She is shunned in a ballet class, and later a young friend is told she can’t play with Nikki. And Nikki hears stories about what is done to Black people in the South. Her family watches the turmoil surrounding Malcolm X with deep interest.

While these racial issues are inherently discomforting, the book offers positive presentations, too. Nikki’s father purposely exposes her to accomplished African-American artists to help her see success is not for White people only. And the author promotes the idea of seeking healing and healthy resolution in life.

Parents of young readers should know, however, that author Nikki Grimes doesn’t pull many punches when it comes to the alcoholism, drug use, physical abuse and even rape that scarred her young life. And that can make for a sad and often painful read.

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not necessarily their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book’s review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

Review by Danielle Pitzer