Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Providing a realistic portrait of a young boy becoming a drug addict in the inner city of New York, A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich suggests that there are no simple answers to the problems of addiction, poverty, and crime. A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich is told as a series of brief monologues. Presented in a “documentary” style, the novel depicts each of the main characters telling his or her story in turn. This approach serves both to reinforce the novel’s graphic realism and to illustrate the complexity of the problems that it addresses. All the novel’s characters are distinct individuals, offering their own explanations for Benjie’s problems, justifying their own actions, and, at times, impugning the motives of others. By telling her story in this way, Childress is able to strip away her characters’ self-deceptions and balance every plausible accusation against an equally plausible countercharge.
The novel begins with Benjie’s description of his neighborhood. It is a dismal place: Poverty and drugs are everywhere; rampant crime makes young and old alike afraid to leave their homes; most families have been torn apart by divorce or death. It is important for the reader to see Benjie’s world through this character’s own eyes and to develop sympathy for him at the very beginning of the novel. If Childress did not structure the plot in this way, the reader might be tempted to dismiss Benjie as merely a...
(The entire section is 901 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich traces the devastating effects of drugs on its principal character, Benjie Johnson, his family, and society. Born into a poor family in the ghetto of Harlem, Benjie wanders aimlessly into the jaws of destruction. Benjie has been taught never to be “chicken,” so when he is challenged into taking drugs, he responds by showing his friends that he can take heroin without becoming a casualty. The issues of identity and the quest for wholeness that surround Benjie’s motivation for taking drugs become significant in the light of the fact that the novel is set in the period immediately following the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich mirrors urban ghetto life, depicting African Americans who seem fragmented and alienated because of race, gender, and class barriers.
The novel opens with Benjie trying to convince himself that he is not a junkie and that he can give up heroin at any time. He suffers from depression because his mother loves Craig Butler, a struggling but dignified maintenance man whom Benjie feels has replaced him as head of the house. While Butler tries to act as a positive role model and strong stepfather for Benjie, the youth moves to discredit and to enrage him at every turn.
Benjie copes with feelings of displacement by associating with gang members, who influence him to experiment with drugs. Benjie smokes marijuana until one...
(The entire section is 583 words.)
A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich examines questions of human relationships, self-image, racial identity, and personal commitment while telling the story of one boy's struggle against drug addiction. Filled with interesting, realistic characters, Childress's story deals honestly and believably with difficult questions.
From the first, the novel demands the reader's intelligent participation. Many characters present conflicting views of racial experiences, poverty, and drug use. The reader must evaluate each point of view, allowing for the personal bias of each. The novel also provides an opportunity for many readers to experience life in the New York inner city. Although the setting is specifically urban, readers from all types of environments can relate to Benjie Johnson's confusion and need for direction in his life, to his disappointment in the adults he knows, and to his joy when he realizes that he is indeed loved. Suspense builds throughout the book about whether Benjie can "kick" his habit and whether he will find a reason to do so— in his relationships with others, in his black pride, or in his own will.
(The entire section is 179 words.)