The Paper Cowboy by Kristin Levine
I pulled this book from my sagging shelves yesterday because I really liked both of Kristin Levine’s previous books. I often do that – find an author I like and read everything they’ve written. I particularly liked The Lions of Little Rock. Set in Arkansas, this story of segregation takes place about a year after the Little Rock Nine crisis when the ugliness of segregation rears its head again. Two girls become good friends until one leaves school abruptly. Marlee finds out that Liz left their school because she was found to be black, not the white girl she pretended to be. The friendship endures through an awful time of white vs. black violence and all the ensuing unrest. Will Marlee and Liz be able to be friends in this polarized society? It’s really a marvelous book.
The Paper Cowboy is a multi-layered novel. It’s the story of a bully named Tommy whose occasional bullying initially seems to be more like pranks. It’s also the story of his mother’s mental instability following the birth of her 4th child. It’s the story of rumor and innuendo as well.
This book is set in the McCarthy era when people became suspicious of one another being associated with Communism. Just as McCarthy ruined the careers of many people who he accused of being communists (without proof), Downers Grove is torn apart when a copy of The Daily Worker is found in town.
On the surface, life in Downers Grove in the 1950s seems as calm and staid as any other small town. Tommy’s family, however, is struggling. In the months following the birth of her 4th baby Mom is becoming more and more out of control. Wild mood swings, violent behavior, and depression turn her into someone he doesn’t know. His eldest sister, Mary Lou, protects him until she has an accident that puts her in the hospital for months. The pressure on Tommy is enormous and his behavior goes from mild bullying to out and out meanness. Relationships change in town when The Daily Worker surfaces bringing the reality of the McCarthy witch hunts front and center. Tommy is smack in the middle of it all. This is a beautifully written story of a bully whose behavior spirals out of control as his life in small town, post-war America unravels before him.
This is a novel well worth reading. Kids from 10-13 is the targeted audience.