The Vietnam War seems to be ending at last and Paul, 16, canâ€™t wait to see his older brother who is in the Army. When Chris comes home on leave though, he shares a dangerous secret with Paul: heâ€™s gay. And when Chris returns to battle, he is killed. Paul is left alone with his grief and the secret, which he cannot share with his family or friends. Forced that summer by his disapproving father to work in the family pet store, Paul has to train J.J., a new employee who also happens to be gay. Paul resents J.J.â€™s positive attitude, talent, and intelligence, but grudgingly realizes that he can learn a lot from him. Paulâ€™s friendship with J.J. helps him process his grief and his anxiety regarding Chrisâ€™ sexual orientation. It also helps him to stand up to his overly critical father.
This character-driven, coming-of-age story is told from an unusual point of view. Readers get to experience the homophobic society of America in the 1970s through eyes of someone with a gay sibling. The resentment that Paul feels towards Chris for being the favored son is juxtaposed with the grief Paul feels at his death. In addition, Paul has to bear the weight of Chrisâ€™ secret, as well as his own confusion about it. These combustible emotions comprise the internal action of the story and are authentically depicted. The atmosphere of the United States in the 1970s provides the cultural setting, but it isnâ€™t conveyed as masterfully by the author as the protagonistâ€™s emotions. It is doubtful that younger readers will be able to grasp from this novel alone how homophobia was such a cultural norm for the vast number of people in the U.S. so soon after Stonewall.
The absence of convincing 1970s-level homophobia and pop culture details are the only things that makes this novel lack verisimilitude. Readers who long for a heartfelt story of loss and redemption told from the point of view of homophobiaâ€™s other casualties — the parents, friends, and families of gays — will be gratified by this authorâ€™s accurate portrayal of Paulâ€™s emotional journey. It is recommended for young adult collections in most libraries.
Reviewed by S. Annelise Adams
Chicago Public Library