‘The Parker Inheritance’ by Varian Johnson: A Middle Grade Novel Bursting with Puzzles, Diversity, and History

the parker inheritance

With “The Parker Inheritance,” Varian Johnson shows that with each book, his writing just gets better and better. And considering his first book, “The Great Greene Heist” and the sequel “To Catch a Cheat” were fabulous, that’s saying something.

All Johnson’s books feature main characters of color. In “The Parker Inheritance,” Johnson takes it one step farther and makes an important part of the book about discrimination and prejudice both 60 years ago and today. The past and the present are cleverly delineated by printing the modern story on white paper and the story of the past on gray paper. The two colors work really well with the two sections printed on black paper with white type. Those two sections are at the beginning and the end of the book and are titled “Abigail Caldwell.” The different colors help differentiate the different stories.

Abigail Caldwell was Candice’s grandmother, and in her attic, she left Candice a puzzle to solve. It was a puzzle that had cost her a job she dearly loved, but one that she thought was worth solving. A millionaire had left his millions to the city of Lambert with part of the inheritance going to whoever solved the puzzle. But the money would stay hidden until someone solved the puzzle.

Candice and her mother leave their home in Atlanta to live for the summer in the home her Grandmother left them in Lambert. Candice is unhappy because she is leaving her friends and also because her parents are getting divorced. She quickly meets Brandon, a kid one year younger than she, who lives across the street. Brandon shows her around town, and once they find the letter with the puzzle, they begin to solve it together.

Along the way, Candice realizes some hard truths about growing up black in a small southern town. Tori, Brandon’s older sister, carefully drives the speed limit because getting stopped by a police officer can have deadly results for a black teenager. Thus readers from all backgrounds and of diverse colors can get a glimpse into what those with dark skin deal with every day of their lives.

But it’s not all diversity — there’s also a huge helping of solving puzzles to find the hidden treasure — the “inheritance” left by the mysterious James Parker. Johnson does a fabulous job of keeping all the characters interesting and unique. Brandon lives with his mother and his grandfather, and his interactions with his grandfather lead Candice to realize that even family sometimes needs reminding about what is truly important. Her own family has troubles of their own with her mom living by writing romance novels, and her father leaving them and not letting Candice stay at his apartment for some mysterious reason. There’s also a bully to deal with, so Johnson includes a plethora of social issues, but in a manner so natural that it flows beautifully in the story.

The story builds until by the middle of the book, it’s difficult to put down. The reader is dying to know what clue the determined duo will solve next and also what will happen to the characters from the past, Enoch Washington, his wife Leanne, and most of all, their passionate, headstrong daughter Siobhan.

Homage is paid to “The Westing Game,” a story with a mystery that readers try to solve along the way. Both the characters from the past and the main characters love the story, and it inspires the creation and the solution to the puzzle.

The Author’s Note at the end of the book explains what in the story is based on fact (a lot) and what isn’t (the puzzle and donation). The information included might open the eyes of many younger readers to America’s embarrassing past and how not enough has been done to change things now.

Just maybe, reading this book will provide not just entertainment for young readers — and there’s a lot of entertainment in this book — but also an understanding of the difficulties of life that those whose skin is not white might encounter today and certainly have encountered in the past.

Excellent choice for any reader. The action and adventure will draw in reluctant readers, good readers will love trying to solve the clues, those who enjoy historical fiction will love the parts of the past, and everyone will love the feisty characters.

Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by Arthur A. Levine Books, the publisher, for review purposes.

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