Latin instructor Jerome Washington is a man out of place. The lone African-American teacher at the Chelsea School, an elite all-boys boarding school in Connecticut, he has spent nearly two decades trying not to appear too "racial." So he is unnerved when Rashid Bryson, a promising black inner-city student who is new to the school, seeks Washington as a potential ally against Chelsea's citadel of white privilege. Preferring not to align himself with Bryson, Washington rejects the boy's friendship. Surprised and dismayed by Washington's response, Bryson turns instead to Jana Hansen, a middle-aged white divorcée who is also new to the school -- and who has her own reasons for becoming involved in the lives of both Bryson and Washington.
Southgate makes her debut as a writer to watch in this compelling, provocative tale of how race and class ensnare Hansen, Washington, and Bryson as they journey toward an inevitable and ultimately tragic confrontation.
An upscale New England prep school is the setting for an intense confrontation between a brilliant Latin teacher and a precocious student in Southgate's quietly stunning second novel (after Another Way to Dance). Jeremy Washington is the erudite African-American academic whose carefully constructed world begins to collapse with the simultaneous arrival of Jana Hansen, a high-spirited, divorced English teacher, and Rashid Bryson, one of the few African-American students at the elite Chelsea School. Hansen makes the first dent in Washington's emotional armor when the attraction between the two teachers bubbles over into a romantic night after they chaperone a school dance. But Hansen is put off by Washington's reluctance to help her with the troubled Bryson, who is struggling to deal with the tragic death of his brother, Kofi, a former scholarship student whose promising stint at a private school was curtailed when he was killed in a random shooting in their Brooklyn neighborhood. Washington cites the youth's lack of discipline as the reason for his unwillingness, but when Bryson calls out Washington after receiving a blatantly unfair grade in Latin class, their meeting strikes a chord from Washington's own troubled past that reveals the real source of his antipathy. Southgate is a compelling storyteller who slowly builds tension while drawing three marvelously diverse characters, and her plot transcends its racial themes as she steers her charges toward a surprising but believable ending. This is a deeply thoughtful, literate novel, and Southgate's ability to explore the social and emotional elements that unite and divide us establishes her as a serious talent.