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In the Family Way 

Immersion journalism yields intimate view

It's rare for a book to actually break new ground in a genre. Adrian Nicole LeBlanc's Random Family is that kind of book for the field of narrative journalism, sometimes called creative nonfiction.

A young journalist in New York in her 20s, LeBlanc wrote occasionally for The Village Voice and worked for Seventeen magazine. Her interest was the media's portrayal of teenagers -- how they are frequently demonized or trivialized while the complicated aspects of their lives go ignored.

At 26, she wrote a story for Village Voice on the rise and fall of a New York drug dealer, Boy George, who, at the pinnacle of his crime career was making $100,000 a week. Following George's trial, LeBlanc met his girlfriend Jessica, a beautiful 14-year-old Puerto Rican girl from the Bronx. When George went to federal prison, LeBlanc continued to follow Jessica, her mother Lourdes, her brother Cesar, Cesar's girlfriend Coco and all their extended family.

For 10 years, she observed the details of their daily lives, watching as an impassive observer as they navigated welfare lines, appointments with parole officers and social workers, prison visits, public transportation, menial jobs, brushes with crime, drug habits and the perpetual struggle to survive and find beauty for themselves and their children.

The book LeBlanc finished almost 12 years later is as hard to read as it is compulsively readable.

By the time she met Jessica and Coco, both girls had already dropped out of school and were mothers. By the time they were 25, each had five children, Jessica had served a seven-year prison sentence where she was impregnated with twins by a guard, Cesar was convicted of manslaughter for the accidental shooting of his best friend, and Coco had moved her children upstate to the crumbling industrial town of Troy, N.Y. in search of safer public housing and a way out of the cycle of violence and poverty.

There is no fairy-tale ending. As Coco becomes more and more the heart of the story, allowing LeBlanc unlimited access to her life and her children's lives, we know that hers will be a lifelong struggle and it will be a miracle if her children break out of the pattern of abuse and teen-age pregnancy.

LeBlanc dignifies her subjects with her strong eye and ear for detail, chronicling the small ways they register their love for one another, in acts as simple as braiding hair. In one of the book's touching final scenes, Jessica, released from prison and employed in a good job, hires a limousine for her oldest daughter Serena and a group of her friends, to celebrate Serena's birthday. They ride out of the neighborhood into Manhattan, to Times Square, where they watch the flashing lights but can't work up the nerve to get out of the car. When they are asked where they want to go next, they can't think of a place. "They wanted to leave the familiar world behind," observed LeBlanc, "but no one knew the direction out." Eventually they ask the driver to take them home.

Random Family is a landmark book for the depth and breadth of its observation, for its even-handedness, and for taking readers to a world they know only from news broadcasts that chronicle drive-by shootings and acts of random violence. We see those acts in this deep chronicle, but we also see acts of random courage in the quest for the universal dream of family.

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