‘The Right Mistake’ through 2017’s lens

Andie Divelbiss | Contributing Writer

Scrolling through social media, reading about Congress and even walking down the street, it’s easy to see that our country is experiencing extreme division over many controversial political issues. The question is how we overcome that division to solve problems of violence and intolerance in our society. This is the question that main character Socrates Fortlow attempts to answer in the novel “The Right Mistake” by Walter Mosley. Even though it was published in 2008, it’s eerily relevant in 2017—arguably more than it was when it first came out.

Socrates Fortlow is a 60-year-old ex-convict with 27 years of jail time under his belt who is now living a relatively quiet life in South Central Los Angeles. One day, he looks outside and sees all the violence and racial division that surround him and decides to do something about it. He forms a Thinkers’ Club where people from all walks of life can come together to discuss the unanswerable questions in life. The initial group is comprised of about 15 individuals from all different races, religions and social statuses. The members all sit around “The Big Table,” eat a home-cooked meal and then debate long into the night on topics ranging from gun violence to racial division and beyond. Eventually the group grows, and despite pressures from the police and internal division, the Thinkers’ Club begins to make a real difference.

The book is slow-moving and thought-provoking in the best way possible. While the novel is driven forward by conflict with external forces like authorities, the real strength of the book is found in the slow-burning discussions at the Big Table and the unfolding relationships and development of the characters. One particularly stirring example of this is the evolution of the relationship between a young man in a gang—who has committed gun violence—and an older woman who lost her son to gang violence. Over the course of the novel, the basis of their interactions changes from hatred to empathetic mentorship.

Despite the fact that the book is a work of fiction, it forces readers to acknowledge the very real consequences of intense social division and the difficulty of resolving it. However, “The Right Mistake” is anything but defeatist. Rather, it is a tribute to hope and human connection in the face of overwhelming obstacles. It posits the idea that an individual person can make a difference in this world of violence and insensitivity by starting from the grassroots with empathy and compassion.

As a country, we’re currently in need of addressing all of the divisive issues, like gun control and racial division, that the novel confronts, as well as LGBTQIA* rights, immigration, abortion, women’s rights and many more. While all of the negativity and hate that has seeped into our national discussion can seem paralyzing, “The Right Mistake” is a reminder that you and I can make a difference, even if it’s just by practicing empathy and even if it only helps one person. Sitting around a table and talking about the issues that plague our country with an open mind won’t solve them overnight, but it might open up a much-needed space for discussion, reflection and healing that eventually trickles up.