Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Hoppergrass, a book review

Hoppergrass is a YA novel about a fifteen-year-old boy sent to a southern reform school in the late sixties. Although uneven in its narration, Hoppergrass eventually delivers a strong tale of courage, self-assertion, and redemption.

Bowser is a middle class kid sent to The Hill for reasons we don't learn until the end of the book. With an uncertain sentence before him and worries about whether he is mentally disturbed, Bowser cultivates a reputation for violence and relies on his white gang--kids with names like Snicklesnort, Babyback, and Evan--to watch his back. When he develops an unexpected friendship with a huge black boy named Nose, he keeps it secret, fearing his reputation will take a hit.

Then Evan is killed in an accident and Nose is wrongly accused of manslaughter, set up by the sadistic staff member the boys call Shorty Nub. Bowser, enraged and confused, has to figure out how to save his friend from prison.

This book has its share of flaws. Although Bowser narrates the book, for the first third of it his flat affect and detached style keep the reader at a distance. Even thereafter his motivation and simply what's happening are sometimes unclear. Hoppergrass is populated with too many blank, venal adults to keep track of easily. Among the adults, only the villain Shorty Nub and two rare good adults, Miss Lovitt the librarian and Mr. Woodrow the maintenance man, emerge as full characters.

Still, the kids are well-drawn, and the book addresses a theme I haven't seen in youth fiction before: the tendency to space out and feel confused as a way to duck responsibility when moral decisions get tough. Bowser does it with drugs or daydreaming, and he has to learn to struggle against the temptation: "I decided to make myself as strong and clear as I could and not allow myself to space out into story time."

Author Chris Carlton Brown has taught teens both at a psychiatric center and in special education, and he writes with authority about troubled boys protecting themselves with toughness and swagger. One caution: the authenticity of the story means that this book carries a heavy load of violence, crude sexual references, smoking, drug use, and delinquent behavior. The kids' innocence and hope hides deep under a tough exterior, but it's there, and without sentimentality Hoppergrass shows how it sometimes struggles to emerge.

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