Any Small Goodness
is a fiction novel published in 2001 by the American author Tony Johnston. Subtitled A Novel of the Barrio
, the book concerns a Mexican family who relocates to Los Angeles with their adolescent son, Arturo. The "barrio" is a Spanish word meaning a neighborhood, and in this case it refers to a neighborhood in East Los Angeles.
When Arturo's family moves from Mexico to Los Angeles, the 11-year-old boy is overwhelmed by his new surroundings. After witnessing and experiencing a number of dangerous situations, Arturo resolves to do whatever he can to keep his family safe. He sums up his new attitude on life in the following quote:“Given that in life there is bueno and malo, If you do not find enough of the good, you must create it.”
Even at a young age, Arturo is keenly aware of the wealth disparities in the city of Los Angeles. He knows that a huge number of the citizens there are either too wealthy or too impoverished, and there is little "in-between" that he can see in his daily life. Meanwhile, Arturo's biggest escape from the harsh realities of his life come through his love of basketball. He makes time early every morning before school to practice with his friends.
As he gets older, he joins the school's basketball squad. The coach surprises the team one day by introducing a new assistant coach who they are told is a "famous" basketball player who wishes to remain anonymous. Arturo and the rest of his teammates are enormously excited, and they nickname him Coach Tree because of his formidable height. Beyond his basketball skill, Coach Tree becomes a significant model for Arturo when he discovers that Jose, the best player on the team but a troubled young man, has stolen from the coach. Rather than call the police, Coach Tree uses the opportunity to mentor Jose on ethics and his schoolwork. This is a radical moment for Arturo, who is used to viewing authority figures with a measure of distrust. Instead, Coach Tree has offered a model for goodness that the young boy will go on to emulate.
There are a number of other models for positive behavior included in the book. For example, there is a famous pianist in the barrio named Mama Dulce who seeks to improve the lives of the neighborhood youths by giving them piano lessons. Just as Coach Tree instills discipline in the lives of his charges, Mama Dulce shows them beauty, through her music.
As the story progresses, Arturo becomes more keenly aware of the gang activity in his neighborhood. There are a number of gangs that dress all in black and mark houses they plan to rob with red X's. To counter the gang activity, Arturo believes the only thing to do is start his own gang. He calls themselves "The Green Needle Gang." Their goal is to protect the people of the neighborhood, like the local "pigeon lady" who lives with what seems like dozens of children. After noticing the other gang leave a red X on her door, Arturo and his gang of do-gooders stick around in hopes of preventing the robbery. Luckily, when the cop arrives, he doesn't jump to conclusions and arrest Arturo and his friends. They are the only ones near the house at the time, because the more nefarious gang has already left the premises.
In another chapter, Arturo's own home catches stray bullets while his family is gathered around the kitchen table. Events like these complicate the moral framework Arturo tries to establish for himself, his family, and his neighborhood. "Despite the good," Arturo says, "no one’s real safe."
The story is largely told in this episodic manner. Other episodes include one about Christmas in which we see how American immigrants assimilate not by simply copying the traditions of their new home, but by fusing their own traditions with those of America. The result of this episodic storytelling is to paint a rich tapestry of characters who choose not to give into the despair of poverty or crime but instead to do what they can to better themselves and those around them.
In this way, Any Small Goodness
presents a clear moral and ethical philosophy suggesting that no matter how bad things get--and even if you fear the good will never truly outweigh the bad--it's no reason to give in to the evil of the world.