Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Paper Cowboy by Kristin Levine

It's 1953, and Tommy just wants to hang out with friends, be a cowboy and pretend to fight communists.  But then Tommy's older sister Mary Lou is terribly burned in an accident, and things begin to fall apart.  Tommy's mother, who was always moody, has violent outbursts and beats Tommy.  Tommy starts bullying other kids at school, and frames a shopkeeper for being a communist.  Rumors of communism spread out of control, and Tommy doesn't know what to do to set things right.

This was very well done.  The story is about Tommy and his family, but it's all the more powerful for being set against a backdrop of McCarthyism.  Tommy doesn't realize the consequences of his actions when he puts a communist newspaper in Mr. McKenzie's store.  He's angry and wants to do something mean.  It's shocking to him how quickly people turn away from Mr. McKenzie and boycott his store, even when it's made clear it was a prank.  Everyone is so afraid of being labeled a communist.  Tommy decides to find out who the communist newspaper actually belonged to, thereby finding the real communist and clearing Mr. McKenzie's name.  Every time he's ready to accuse someone else, he realizes things were not what they seem to be.  It takes a while for Tommy to learn not to make quick accusations, and also, that having different beliefs don't make a person bad.

The story of Tommy's family is a sad one.  Today, Tommy's mother would probably be diagnosed with a manic depressive disorder.  There are scenes of her staying up all night cleaning or cooking, and then spending days refusing to get up.  She could go from sweet to violent in a second, and seemed paranoid about people making fun of her.  After Mary Lou is burned and hospitalized, Tommy's mother because more physically violent.  His father doesn't know how to deal with it, and rather than protecting his children he stays away from home as much as possible.  It falls on Tommy to take care of his two little sisters, and take up Mary Lou's paper route.

Tommy, who has no one to vent his feelings to, turns into a bully at school.  In particular he picks on the new boy, Sam, who is Mr. McKenzie's son.  Tommy and his friend Eddie are cruel to Sam, making fun of him, tricking him, and getting him into trouble.  It was an interesting perspective to see where a bully might come from.  It doesn't excuse Tommy's actions, but it was understandable that he might lash out in this way.

Things finally reach a breaking point and Tommy has to make some hard choices.  He learns to ask for help and that accepting charity is not a bad thing.  There are people around him who can support him.

It sounds like there's a lot going on in this book, and there is, but it all worked together perfectly.  Great historical fiction read.

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