I’m Not Dying With You Tonight is a perfect book for the times we live in and would make a great pick for a book club, a community read, middle school and high school students, and their parents. Lena and Campbell are seniors at an Atlanta high school, and other than that they have little in common. They would probably have never had more than cursory interaction with one another if not for the fight and ensuing riot that started at a football game. Authors Kimberly Jones (Lena) and Gilly Segal (Campbell) take turns narrating the momentous events that throw the two girls together, giving the reader a chance to stand in their shoes and see how events unfold and how assumptions are challenged.
We first meet Lena, who is Black, stylish and popular. She has a 20-year-old boyfriend nicknamed Black who is an aspiring musician, and she is proud to be his girlfriend, but her BFF LaShunda signals to the reader that Black may not be the best man for Lena. When he is in a good mood, he treats Lena like a queen, but he can be rude and thoughtless, especially when he is with his crew. Lena’s grandfather Pops does not approve of Black and so Lena sneaks around to be with him, but Pops has eyes and ears throughout the neighborhood, including Lena’s older cousin Marcus, who has had run-ins with Black before. Lena and LaShunda have arranged to attend the football game that night so that they can watch their friends in the halftime show, but Lena plans to leave right after that and meet up with Black.
Campbell, who is white, is a fish out of water. She has just moved to Atlanta to live with her father, the owner of a local hardware store. This was not what she wanted for her final year of high school. She had been happy living up east with her mother, attending school with her best friends and running on the track team, but then her mother dropped a bombshell and upended Campbell’s life. She doesn’t know her new town very well, got cut from the track team, and spends a lot of time alone while her dad works or goes off to his fishing cabin. Friday night is no exception. One of Campbell’s teachers has roped her into working the concession stand at the game, and rather than wait to drive her home, her father agrees to let the teacher drive Campbell so that he can get to his fishing cabin.
Campbell is miserable at the concession stand, which is cramped, messy, and poorly staffed. When Lena steps up to order a drink, she and Campbell have their first interaction, which does not go at all well. Then, a fight breaks out behind Lena and we learn that the visiting team has been known for its racist social media content. It only takes seconds for a huge fight to erupt with police involved. Lena jumps into the concession stand and the girls barricade themselves in, but it becomes clear that they are not safe and will have to rely on each other to get through the events that follow.
The two authors take us through a long and harrowing night for these two teens as they try to get away from the stadium and get home (for Campbell) or to one’s boyfriend (Lena). They discover that the stadium fight has escalated to rioting and looting in town, with all escape routes blocked. As the girls work through this situation, each has the chance to describe what they are seeing and feeling, and while both are terrified, it is not always for the same reasons. For example, Lena is adamant that they have to stay away from the police, which Campbell doesn’t understand because, from her point of view, the police are the people who help you. They have different perspectives on the looting as well, but each girl, as time passes, begins to understand a little better the perspective of the other. Initially they hang on to each other (literally) out of fear but as they face trial after trial, they begin to respect and care about one another. They begin to see each other differently and question the assumptions that they had had at the beginning of the evening.
I cannot recommend this novel enough. It really is very well written from both perspectives and covers many of the issues about race and street demonstrations that have been in the news recently. This book could help open necessary conversations about race in America and perhaps open eyes and change hearts in the process.