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Nightcrawling: Summary and Book Ending Explained


Nightcrawling, authored by Leila Mottley in 2022, delves into a trafficking scandal involving the Oakland, California, police department during the 2010s.

The novel narrates the untold experiences of female survivors through the eyes of 17-year-old Kiara Johnson. Kiara, struggling to support herself, her brother, and her nine-year-old neighbor, reluctantly turns to sex trafficking. Eventually, she becomes a crucial witness in a grand-jury trial after a whistleblower exposes the police’s involvement.

Addressing themes of racial and economic injustice, familial loyalty, and gender dynamics, Nightcrawling explores the power dynamics and individual autonomy.

Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley

Leila Mottley started writing Nightcrawling when she was just 17 herself. In a note at the beginning of the book, she says she kept thinking about what happened to the real people involved in the scandal, even after it wasn’t in the news anymore. She wanted to understand what it feels like to be in a vulnerable position with no one looking out for you.

Summary | Ending Explained | Book Club Questions

Nightcrawling Book Summary

In Oakland, California, Kiara Johnson, a 17-year-old Black girl, navigates the challenges of life alongside her older brother, Marcus.

Following their father’s passing and their mother’s incarceration, they struggle to make ends meet, barely scraping together enough money for rent. As the threat of a rent increase looms, Kiara urges Marcus to seek employment, despite their prior agreement allowing him to pursue his passion for music production with hopes of becoming a successful rapper.

However, Marcus adamantly refuses to work, opting instead to spend his days at the Nightcrawling recording studio owned by his friend Cole. Kiara manages to secure occasional shifts at a liquor store and relies on the support of her friend Alé, who clandestinely provides her with food from their family restaurant.

Together, Kiara and Alé resort to crashing local funeral visitations, indulging in buffet food and discreetly acquiring clothing from mourners as they strive to survive in their challenging circumstances.

Kiara has assumed the responsibility of looking after Trevor, the nine-year-old boy next door, whose mother is frequently absent due to a substance disorder. Despite her efforts to find employment by traversing various businesses, she faces constant rejection.

One day, she visits a gentlemen’s club where Lacy, a former girlfriend of Marcus’s, works as a bartender. Although the club refuses to hire Kiara, Lacy offers her complimentary drinks.

As Kiara leaves the club, she is approached by a man who had been sitting nearby at the bar. He takes her to a rooftop and hands her $200 after having sex with her. Astonished by how swiftly she earned a substantial amount, Kiara decides to explore further opportunities for sex work.

On her initial nights on the streets, Kiara encounters Camila, an experienced sex worker, who advises her against working alone and suggests finding a male protector. Taking heed of Camila’s advice, Kiara turns to Tony, a friend of Marcus’s, to fill this role, albeit reluctantly on his part.

However, Tony, who harbors feelings for Kiara, soon becomes uncomfortable with her involvement in sex work and withdraws his support. Meanwhile, Marcus secures a job at the gentlemen’s club through his connection with Lacy but quickly resigns.

Feeling frustrated and desperate, Kiara reaches out to her mother, affectionately referred to as Mama, who resides in a halfway house. Kiara hopes Mama can connect her with Uncle Ty, their paternal uncle who relocated to Los Angeles after achieving success in his musical career.

Mama agrees to provide Kiara with Uncle Ty’s contact information under the condition that Kiara visits her. Despite Kiara’s visit, Mama proves unhelpful, leaving Kiara doubting her ability to facilitate contact with Uncle Ty.

Reflecting on her parents’ past, particularly her father’s involvement with the Black Panther Party, Kiara also contemplates the tragic incident that led to Mama’s incarceration: the drowning of Kiara’s toddler sister, Soraya, in the apartment pool while under Mama’s care, which culminated in Mama’s attempted suicide.

Upon returning home, Kiara finds herself still engaged in sex trafficking work but is apprehended by the police. Facing potential arrest, the officers offer her a deal: she can evade legal consequences if she agrees to participate in “parties” where officers engage in sex trafficking activities with her for payment.

Feeling coerced and without alternatives, Kiara reluctantly accepts. Over the ensuing months, she manages to sustain herself and Trevor by earning enough from these “parties” to cover rent and necessities. However, the continuous abuse takes a toll on her, leaving her increasingly traumatized.

Amidst this turmoil, Kiara learns from Shauna, Cole’s girlfriend, that Marcus and Cole, along with their associates, have turned to drug dealing. With Marcus failing to contribute to household expenses, Kiara insists he vacate the premises.

Despite her ongoing involvement with the police, Kiara encounters Camila once more, who persuades her to attend a gathering hosted by Desmond, promising he can help “manage” Kiara’s trafficking endeavors. At the party, Kiara receives a warning call indicating undercover police presence, prompting her to flee in a car sent for her.

However, the officer who picks her up turns out to be one of those involved in the police parties. He coerces Kiara into spending the night with him, refusing payment unless she complies, leaving her with no choice but to agree.

On her 18th birthday, Kiara and Trevor attempt to enjoy a day of celebration with baking and sports. Their plans are interrupted when police officers appear at the swimming pool, requesting Kiara’s presence for questioning.

It’s revealed that the officer she spent the night with has committed suicide, leaving behind a note detailing the police trafficking ring, including Kiara’s alias. Despite not initially knowing these specifics, Kiara later receives information from an undercover officer, Sandra, who promises to expose the trafficking parties. However, when asked if she wants her name revealed, Kiara adamantly refuses.

As news of the scandal breaks, Kiara finds herself consumed by paranoia and fear, despite her name being initially omitted from reports. Struggling with her growing apprehension, she confides in both Alé and Marcus, claiming to be the unnamed woman mentioned in the news.

Alé, feeling disillusioned by what she perceives as Kiara’s complicity in the events, distances herself. Eventually, Kiara’s pseudonym is unveiled, exacerbating her predicament, especially when Marcus and Cole face arrest for drug possession.

In a bid for assistance, Kiara strikes a deal with Sandra, who agrees to provide her with Uncle Ty’s contact details in exchange for Kiara’s cooperation with an attorney.

Upon Uncle Ty’s brief visit, he offers limited support before returning to Los Angeles, leaving Kiara grappling with uncertainty about her future and the safety of herself and Trevor. Unable to continue her previous line of work and fearing police reprisal, Kiara eventually contacts the attorney, Marsha Fields, recommended by Sandra.

In the ensuing weeks, Marsha guides Kiara in preparation for the grand jury trial, which will determine whether the implicated police officers will face trafficking charges. Kiara emphasizes the need to secure Marcus’s release from jail, and Marsha vows to explore options for his case.

Meanwhile, Trevor endures a severe beating, heightening Kiara’s anxieties about his safety, especially regarding potential involvement from Child Protective Services. Despite Mama’s limited ability to aid Kiara, their reunion leads to a poignant moment of solace, as Mama encourages Kiara to release her pent-up frustrations.

As the grand-jury trial unfolds, Kiara testifies, facing intense scrutiny from the judge, who distorts facts to insinuate her voluntary involvement in the illicit activities. Despite Kiara’s assertions of coercion, the grand jury delivers a disappointing verdict, ruling against indicting the police officers.

In a surprising turn, Alé extends an apology to Kiara, fostering a moment of intimacy between them before Marsha delivers the disappointing news of the grand jury’s decision. The novel culminates in a bittersweet moment as Trevor returns unexpectedly, briefly escaping foster care to retrieve his basketball. Despite the inevitable return to foster care, Kiara and Trevor share a final swim together, cherishing their bond amid uncertainty.

Nightcrawling Book Ending Explained

In the final chapters, we see the characters grow a lot. Trevor’s injuries show how much he’s been through in his short life. Kiara takes care of him like a mother would, showing how important she is to him.

When Trevor goes into Child Protective Services custody, Kiara tries to make it easier for him. By now, Trevor relies on Kiara not just for physical needs but also for emotional support. It’s surprising that Kiara is young enough to be Trevor’s sister, yet she’s had to act like an adult.

Trevor’s mom, Dee, shows up for the first and only time at the end of the story. Kiara knows Dee’s addiction makes her unable to be a good mom to Trevor, and it’s hard for her to forgive Dee for neglecting him. There’s no sign that Dee will change anytime soon. But there’s a small hope with Mama.

With Kiara’s help, Mama gets out of the halfway house and starts rebuilding her life. Even though Mama still can’t offer Kiara much help financially, she’s there for her emotionally for the first time. When Mama encourages Kiara to let out her frustrations by screaming, it shows she understands what Kiara’s going through.

The scream serves as a way for Kiara to let out all the pent-up emotions she’s been holding in for months. She’s been so focused on surviving—earning money for rent, taking care of Trevor, and avoiding the police—that she hasn’t had the chance to confront the pain she faces every day. Letting out a scream helps her release some of this frustration, which words alone can’t express accurately.

Mama’s advice also reminds Kiara of the danger of staying silent. Kiara has been forced to endure abuse and injustice silently. By screaming, she’s symbolically speaking out against the unfairness and trauma in her life. This scream foreshadows the “speaking out” Kiara will do during the grand-jury trial.

From the beginning of the trial, it’s clear that injustice prevails. Kiara notices she’s the only one sitting on her side of the courtroom. She’s alone in challenging the police department’s version of events, and even Marsha isn’t allowed to be with her during her testimony.

Throughout her testimony, the judge tries to shift blame away from the police officers involved, suggesting that Kiara could have refused to participate in the “parties.”

The judge tries to tarnish Kiara’s reputation by suggesting that her need for money was driven by drug use. Despite it being clear to Kiara, Marsha, and Sandra that she’s a survivor of sex trafficking, the powerful system in place has much at stake in admitting fault on behalf of the police. Consequently, it’s easy for them to see Kiara as expendable. So, when the decision not to indict is made, Kiara isn’t surprised.

Although Alé has been unsure in her support for Kiara, her visit to Kiara after the trial suggests a change of heart. Alé struggled to separate Kiara’s situation from that of her missing sister, viewing Kiara as willingly choosing a path similar to what might have been inflicted on Clara.

However, by the end, Alé realizes this isn’t the case for Kiara. It seems probable that Alé’s love will provide Kiara with the nurturing support she needs going forward. Despite the uncertainty of Kiara’s future, the ending carries an optimistic tone, implying that she’ll overcome whatever challenges lie ahead.

Happy reading! ❤️