Thursday, March 24, 2016
Review: The Paper Cowboy
Penguin, September 2014
About the Book
Though he thinks of himself as a cowboy, Tommy is really a bully. He’s always playing cruel jokes on classmates or stealing from the store. But Tommy has a reason: Life at home is tough. His abusive mother isn’t well; in fact, she may be mentally ill. And his sister, Mary Lou, is in the hospital badly burned from doing a chore it was really Tommy’s turn to do.
To make amends, Tommy takes over Mary Lou’s paper route. But the paper route also becomes the perfect way for Tommy to investigate his neighbors after stumbling across a copy of The Daily Worker, a communist newspaper.
Tommy is shocked to learn that one of his neighbors could be a communist, and when Tommy uses the paper to frame a storeowner, Mr. McKenzie, fear takes over this tight-knit community. As Mr. McKenzie’s business slowly falls apart and Mary Lou doesn’t seem to get any better, Tommy’s mother’s abuse gets worse causing his bullying to spiral out of control.
Poignantly written, The Paper Cowboy proves Kristin Levine to be a master of gripping and affecting historical fiction.
I’ve yet to be disappointed by Kristin Levine’s fiction. I loved The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had and The Lions of Little Rock. I still would love to find time to reread both books. Her newest book is The Paper Cowboy. The author’s note reveals much: The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had is loosely based on her maternal grandfather’s memoirs, and The Lions of Little Rock was inspired by her mother’s childhood in Arkansas. This newest book is based on/influenced by her father’s childhood. It is set during the McCarthy era, when the threat of communist spies was very strong no matter how big or small the community.
I’m tempted to keep it brief: Read this! But would that do it justice? Probably not. But I don’t want to give away too much either.
I love The Paper Cowboy for its humanity. It almost aches with its humanity. There’s not one perfect, flawless character within. Tommy, the protagonist, is far from perfect. In fact, he’s a bit of a bully. But it’s almost impossible to keep standing in judgment of Tommy once you get a glimpse of his home life. Time and time again, readers see a powerless Tommy in heartbreaking situations.
I love The Paper Cowboy for its look at family life. Every member of the family is fully developed. (Well, perhaps with the exception of the baby. Tommy’s youngest sister is just three months old when the novel opens.) But one really gets relationships in this book. Tommy in relationship with his dad, with his mom, with his older sister, with his younger sisters. And the relationships feel completely authentic no matter if they’re good or healthy or not so much. The sibling Tommy is closest to is his sister, Mary Lou, who is badly burned in an accident near the start of the novel.
I love The Paper Cowboy for its sense of community. I loved getting to know folks in Tommy’s community. Particularly, I loved his developing relationships with several adults within the community: Mr. McKenzie and Mrs Glazov, Mrs. Scully, and Pa and Ma Konecky. I just came to care for all the characters, no matter how minor. For example, Mrs. Glazov never felt minor to me at all, and I just loved her.
I love The Paper Cowboy for its look at friendship and school life and even bullying. I certainly wasn’t expecting a book on the subject of bullying told primarily from the bully’s point of view. But sometimes a book just finds you—you don’t have to seek it out. I do think it’s interesting to consider Tommy as a whole person. At recess at his school, he can pick on his classmates and get away with it because he has a way with his teachers. But the reader sees beneath the surface. Yes, absolutely Tommy’s actions are just wrong. But when a character is fleshed out so completely, so thoroughly, compassion may just come easier than judgment. One friendship comes about so slowly that it deserves attention. I loved the character of Sam McKenzie.
I love The Paper Cowboy because it makes you feel—sometimes so much it leaves you aching. It’s an emotionally intense read, and there are some tough moments to witness in this coming-of-age novel.