Richard’s life is going nowhere in the South. He decides to go north, to the land of magic and happiness.
Let’s be clear: Jackson, Mississippi, is not some kind of post-apocalyptic, Mad Max sort of town. The Terminator isn’t coming. There are no Hunger Games. None of that stuff. The first problem with Jackson is that it is in the South during the Jim Crow era. The second problem with Jackson is that Richard—a poor, skinny, little black kid who wants to read, write, and can’t keep his mouth shut for anything—lives there. Obviously, these two things don’t belong together. So, when Richard realizes that no one around him will support his dreams, he sets his eyes on the big city lights of Chicago.
One does not simply walk into Chicago. Even though there are no orcs to fight in the South, racism is a pretty big monster to slay (um, not to mention the problematic racism in J.R.R. Tolkien’s work). Also, Richard has no wizards or elves to help him. He has to figure out ways to earn enough money to get out of Jackson without any magical lembas bread. On the way, he has to compromise his morals, avoid going to jail, and avoid being beaten up by his coworkers and other white people around him. Like we said, this is some tricky stuff.
But, Richard also grows on the journey. He learns more about literature, meets some friendly people, and figures out that the answers to his problems don’t always involve threatening to cut them with a knife.
Richard finally makes it! Chicago, Chi-town, the windy city. Everything is perfect. Or is it?
Because he’s made it to the North, but now what? He struggled and fought to get to Chicago and to be honest, it’s a bit underwhelming. Maybe no one is trying to jump him, but people are scared, it’s cold, and he doesn’t know what to do with himself. It doesn’t matter at first, because Richard’s got a place, food, and books—everything he needs. But, rumors are circulating about rising unemployment rates. Something called an "economy" is not doing so great. Whatever; Richard doesn’t have to pay attention to that kind of stuff. Right?
Wrong. The battle: life and its many layers of ugly vs. Richard’s stubborn will to live. Who will win?
So there’s this thing called the Great Depression. You might have heard about it. It was kind of a big deal.
You know who hasn’t heard about it? Richard. Even though he is living through it. Not until the Depression smacks him in the face and he loses his job does Richard realize his paradise is starting to fall apart. He’s struggling to survive again, just like when he was a kid.
At the same time, Richard gets involved with the ultimate video game boss, the Communist Party. Even though things start out okay, soon the Party ends up some kind of nightmarish war zone that Richard has to fight his way out of. Metaphorically. This is how we know that he’s grown up: he didn’t try to cut anyone, not even once.
With Richard’s newfound maturity, he’s won the ultimate prize: the secret to happiness.
Okay, so you can’t put a bow on it, but it’s still a pretty good place to be at the end of your autobiography. Richard’s experiences escaping from Communist clutches have given him a new and clearer vision. His true goal wasn’t the North, or even the Communist Party. It was writing. And this book that we’ve just read is the prize—his prize, and ours. Pretty neat.