By K.M. Walton. Young Adult. Simon Pulse, 2012. 312 pages. Hardcover.
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K.M. Walton's debut novel is a fast-paced character study of a high school bully and his chief victim. William Mastrick, better know as Bull, beats, taunts, and terrorizes Victor Konig on a daily basis. In an early scene, Bull comes up behind Victor in the cafeteria and punches him so hard he spits out the chocolate milk he is drinking. The reaction from nearby teachers and lunchroom staff is very telling: nothing. Walton does not even mention them. After the recent spate of teen suicides in Minnesota's Anoka-Hennepin school district, brought on by a misguided policy of gay neutrality, it is hard to say Walton is being unrealistic. Those teachers were afraid of losing their jobs if they stood up for a troubled teen. Perhaps those in Victor and Bull's world have similar anxieties.
It is one of literature's jobs to help us face and perhaps overcome our anxieties. Victor and Bull are given ample opportunity to do just that. Bull fears his grandfather's drunken abuse. The old man blames Bull, loud and often, for his grandmother's death. Bull's mother, the old man's daughter, also drinks, neglects Bull, and once slaps him. Thoughtful readers can gain a whole new perspective on Bull, and kids like Bull. Of course teens are responsible for their own actions, but they are not to blame for adults in their lives who make sure they never develop any self-respect. Bull goes from being a mean-hearted sadist to being someone who might be able to change... if he ever gets the opportunity.
As for Victor, a note from his mother on page 93 tells us almost everything we need to know about his seemingly privileged home life. She and his father leave for an extended trip to France. Victor has to stay behind, under his elderly grandmother's care, because his score on the SAT was less than perfect. As the note explains, the parents leave early to get lattes en route to the airport. "We didn't want to wake you," mom writes. She leaves Victor a list of chores and tells him "I've made a drug counseling appointment for you," even though Victor has never touched drugs.
No "Dear Victor" or "love, mom", Victor says in response. I can't believe they didn't even say good-bye... Not even good-bye.
Soon afterwards, Victor and Bull find themselves together in a teenage psych ward for would-be suicides. Victor tried to kill himself, swallowing his mother's antianxiety pills after his beloved dog died. Bull, having found a handgun stashed in a closet, tried to shoot his grandfather. Bull winds up with a gunshot wound in his leg. It puts him in a wheelchair. In his only act of kindness, Bull's grandfather lies to police and says Bull tried to kill himself.
Being roommates does little to improve Victor and Bull's relationship. But they finally meet adults who care for them with no expectations of a reward. They also meet other teens who are just as troubled as they are: abandoned or humiliated by parents, teased and harassed for being obese, locked into private worlds nobody else can enter. Even though they cannot change their parents, the boys learn to change their own attitudes. They form meaningful relationships with peers. They stop hurting themselves; Bull stops harming others. They learn that feelings are not fatal, that circumstances are temporary, that they are capable or giving and receiving love. They grow up. While they are not fully healed from their trauma- this is not a fantasy book- they are equipped to weather any future setbacks with dignity.
This book is useful for teens, both high school and certain middle school students. It is also good for parents and teachers. When kids are traumatized, they act out. A responsible adult must look beyond the outer behavior. We might never know a kid's whole story, but we can still make ourselves a positive part of it.