Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood almost seems like a gathering of all of Trevor Noah’s standup specials about his childhood, jokes and all, placed into a book.
The system of apartheid looms over the book, sort of like the boogeyman. Yet, similar to the childhood villain, it is both something treated as known about but not something necessarily to be feared. The reason being? Because of Trevor’s great hero, the fighter of the oppression: His mom Patricia.
His relationship with his mom, while they both lived under the shroud of apartheid, is the heart of this book. A woman who chose to have a child with a Swiss German man and raise the child, mostly, as a single parent. She choose Trevor and while at times, I’m sure, she may have questioned such a choice as he was a rambunctious kid, causing fires among other things, it is made clear the two have always been close.
Patricia, being a strong Xhosa woman, was never much for following the tides and keeping in line with expectations. She was educated and expected the same of her son. She thought differently and challenged her son to do the same. Even to the point of their arguments sometimes being in letters when they couldn’t see eye to eye on things. Such as one of Trevor’s least favorite activities, going to church.
However, while his mom plays a strong co-starring role in the book, it is really essentially about Trevor taking from her examples and working the system. Some of the ways he did it were commendable, like learning various languages so that him being colored (bi-racial) was never something which could be used against him. For, as a chapter is titled, he could be a chameleon. Though, at the same time, we learn his mom’s spirit of always making a way opened his mind to hustling. Mostly through selling bootlegs.
But, in general, what you are given is a really comedic story about a young man’s coming of age. One which is surprisingly quotable and leaves room for a sequel. For with his rise as a comedian being absent, there is still stories left to be told.
It’s Like Reading Compiled Standup Specials
While I have probably watched most of Trevor Noah’s stand up specials at least once, he isn’t someone familiar to me. On top of that, after Jon Stewart left, I stopped watching The Daily Show. Not out of protest, but because I barely had the time to watch a half-hour news segment and do the usual task I put up on my calendar. So it makes his book seem like a real introduction to who he is, his sense of humor, yet also showing his intelligence.
For if there is one thing you don’t get with a lot of comedians is jokes which have depth to them. Yeah you may get to see them scream, yell, make meme and catchphrase worthy sayings, but there is nothing you can seriously take away from what they say. Noah, through his book, and arguably through his specials, shows that while a lot of things are fun and games, a comedian can pursue deeper thought and keep their audience.
An Entertaining History Lesson
South Africa is rarely in the news and apartheid, for at least the history textbooks I experienced, was a blip. A literally small square just letting you know, “Americans weren’t the only ones being racist!” So with Noah breaking down apartheid and explaining it from a pseudo-legal perspective, as well as capturing what it was like to live during and after, you get a sense of what it was like to deal with that type of systematic racism.
On The Fence
It Glosses Over What Turned Him Into A Comedian
There is a small part of the book, when he is reconciling with his dad, that briefly talks about the start of Trevor’s standup career. However, most of that topic is missing from the book. There isn’t anything about how he got started, how he gained his fame, and things of that nature. Topics which could be featured in a 2nd book, but being that, like most people I’m sure, you expect books like this to cover everything up to the point in life the person is at, there is a slight bit of disappointment.
Overall: Mixed (Borrow)
While I thoroughly enjoyed the book, it doesn’t have any sort of thoughts or stories which make you want to revisit it. To me, this is the type of book that while I may look over the quotes every now and then, I don’t feel the need to revisit the context, re-immerse myself in Noah’s world and while I wished it included his rise to fame, I’m not left clamoring for a sequel. It was a good way to spend many a commute and lunch break, but it’s not something I want to now buy a hardcover edition of for my mini-library.