In Chaim Potok’s 1967 novel The Chosen, narrator Rueven Malter is told by his father David that in this world there are no meaningless or insignificant acts. No act, no matter how small can have profound and lasting consequences. So when a young Steve Klakowicz is given a trove of children’s books by a kindly neighbor woman after being spotted reading on the sidewalk outside his house one day, her modest act of generosity, which to many would look rather insignificant, would profoundly impact his life. Immersed in the fictional worlds of boy detectives, loving and supportive families, intrepid adventurers and heroes of every stripe, he’s granted not only a source of diversion from his hellish foster home, but most importantly, his forays into this imaginary yet wholesome world teach him his abusive home environment isn’t the norm and that he can and should strive for something better. His 2012 memoir A Chance in the World: An Orphan Boy, a Mysterious Past, and How He Found a Place Called Home is the story of how that young boy overcame savage abuse and inconceivable odds to graduate from college, launch a promising career and in the end help create a loving family of his own.
The odds couldn’t have been more against him. A blue-eyed boy with a fair complexion, Afro and Polish last name, he was tossed into an abusive foster home after being abandoned by his alcoholic and neglectful mother. Forced to live as a virtual slave by his foster parents and beaten constantly, he would repeatedly wonder about his birth parents and why he was placed in foster care. But thanks to the occasional kindness of others in providing him with inspiration, Steve was able to use the fruits of these small encounters to nurture his own self of well-being and purpose.
In all my years of reading, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a book that I burned through so quickly, since I probably read about 80 percent of its 272 pages in just one sitting. Not only does Pemberton’s memoir suck you in, it’s an incredibly fast read. However, call me cynical but I’m hoping his “personal editor” Seth Schulman is in fact his talented and capable editor and not his ghost writer.
Many readers will suggest A Child Called “It”: One Child’s Courage to Survive as a companion read. Because of the biracial elements explored in A Chance in the World, I’d also recommend The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother in addition to the anthology Half and Half: Writers on Growing Up Biracial and Bicultural. Keeping with the theme of families lost and found, I’d also recommend Ithaka: A Daughter’s Memoir of Being Lost and Found.
According to the Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his 1970 Nobel acceptance speech, one word of truth shall outweigh the whole world. One wonders if years ago, Steve Pemberton’s neighbor had that in mind when she gave him a stack of books. As a result of his reading, he learned the truth that not only did the outside world looked quite different when compared to that of his horrible foster family, but that he could also strive for greater things. And that truth set him free.