Summary

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 889

Author: Nikki Grimes (b. 1950)

First published: 2005

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Coming of age

Time of plot: Biblical times and present-day

Locales: New York City; Gerar

Principal Characters

Ishmael, Biblical figure, son of Abraham and Hagar

Sam, a teenager in present-day New York City

The Story

...

(The entire section contains 889 words.)

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this Dark Sons study guide. You'll get access to all of the Dark Sons content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

  • Summary
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

Author: Nikki Grimes (b. 1950)

First published: 2005

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Coming of age

Time of plot: Biblical times and present-day

Locales: New York City; Gerar

Principal Characters

Ishmael, Biblical figure, son of Abraham and Hagar

Sam, a teenager in present-day New York City

The Story

Nikki Grimes's Dark Sons, a novel in blank verse that explores fraught father-son relationships, weaves together the stories of Ishmael, the teenage son of Abraham in the Christian Bible, and Sam, a contemporary teenage boy who lives in New York City. The book begins with Ishmael. His story, detailed in the book of Genesis, might be familiar to readers who have studied the Bible. When it becomes clear that Abraham and his wife, Sarah, cannot have children, the eighty-five-year-old patriarch sleeps with Hagar, Sarah's Egyptian slave, and Hagar becomes pregnant. Fearing Sarah's wrath, Hagar tries to run away, but the voice of God compels her to return. She gives birth to Ishmael, Abraham's first son.

Sam's story begins the day his father moves out of the Brooklyn brownstone where he, Sam, and his mother once happily lived. Sam's parents are getting divorced because his father fell in love with another woman, named Rachel. Sam's mother is devastated, and money is tight. Sam takes a job at a local video store, and finds some solace in his friends from church and the band they have together. For the most part, however, Sam is furious with his father. Just as Sam gets used to the idea that his father lives somewhere else and with someone else, his father and Rachel get married. He has just gotten used to the fact that his father is remarried—he spends alternating weekends with the couple in their new house—when his father informs him, in a roundabout way, that Rachel is pregnant.

As Ishmael gets older, he learns the story of his birth. He loves his father; the two of them hunt together and share intimacies, even though Sarah is often wary of him. Ishmael is horrified to learn of his father's early deceit. When Abraham and Sarah were young, Abraham devised a selfish scheme in which he told people they were siblings. The pharaoh took Sarah as his wife, and a plague rained down on Egypt. The fearful pharaoh sent Abraham and Sarah away, but he gave them a human parting gift: his daughter, Hagar. Ishmael grapples with his position. He is his father's only son, but also his slave. This relationship is further complicated when the ninety-year-old Sarah gives birth to a son named Isaac.

Rachel gives birth to a son named David. Sam is instantly taken with the child, though his affection for the baby does little to assuage his anger. Sam's father, distracted by his new family, neglects Sam, which makes the teen angrier still. For instance, Sam's father leaves Sam's church performance early, claiming that he needs to get home to tuck David into bed. But the child also inspires Sam to work to overcome his anger. He tries to form a better relationship with Rachel, and makes an effort to reach out to his father. Just as Sam begins to settle into a routine with his new, other family, another shoe drops: Sam's father, Rachel, and David are moving to California. Sam does not see them off.

Ishmael loves Isaac despite the fact that Isaac's birth has made Ishmael's position in the family increasingly precarious. Sarah speaks openly about throwing Hagar and Ishmael out of the house—so Ishmael, as the eldest son, will not inherit any of Abraham's wealth—but Abraham resists her. At a feast to celebrate Isaac's weaning, Ishmael suffers a cruel blow when Abraham refers to Isaac as his first son—but there is worse to come. God speaks to Abraham in a dream, and Abraham banishes Hagar and Ishmael from the family. Hurt and angry, Ishmael and his mother wander the desert. They almost die of thirst, but God performs a miracle to save them. Ishmael finds solace from his anger in the love of God.

Critical Evaluation

Dark Sons was a Coretta Scott King Honor Book in 2006. At its heart it is a book about fathers and faith. Both Ishmael and Sam—who, in the book's epilogue, comes across Ishmael's story in the Bible—must grapple with the hurtful decisions of their fathers, but both find strength in their faith. (Sam says that they are both "adopted sons of a Father / who hears.") Grimes tells their stories in alternating chapters or "books" (like the Bible) that are composed of individual, free verse poems. She finds similarities in their feelings for their younger brothers (love tinged with an anger beyond their control) and notably, their wronged but still-fighting mothers. Given the strong religious message of the book, Ishmael and Sam's imperfect fathers might be a stand-in for the permutations of fate conjured by the ultimate father—God. Abraham and Sam's father make choices that hurt their sons; Grimes emphasizes that love and faith do not always equal benevolence but merely strength for weathering the storms of life.

Further Reading

  • Review of Dark Sons, by Nikki Grimes. Kirkus, 1 Aug. 2005, www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/nikki-grimes/dark-sons. Accessed 25 Mar. 2017.
  • Review of Dark Sons, by Nikki Grimes. Publishers Weekly, 1 Sept. 2005, www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-7868-1888-4. Accessed 25 Mar. 2017.
Illustration of PDF document

Download Dark Sons Study Guide

Subscribe Now