I still haven’t decided if I like The Paper Cowboy, a new book out by Kristin Levine, author of The Lions of Little Rock. I’m not sure that it matters, however, since it would be strange to admit to really enjoying a book that includes as much tragedy as this one. Tommy’s sister is burned in an accident, his mom verbally and physically abuses him, and his dad is just trying to believe things will be normal again. Also, Tommy’s a bully, and then there’s the fact that it’s set during the height of the “red scare” and Tommy thinks he has to expose a Communist. I spent about half the book thinking, “What next?”
But I kept reading it — it’s so well-written that you can’t really stop once you’re past the first chapter — and over time, slowly, Tommy realizes that it’s really not cool to bully the kid he’s targeted. He starts to understand how his petty attempt to get back at someone might really ruin that person’s life. He figures out how to protect his sisters and himself from his mom’s rages. He makes connections in the community and, eventually, he turns things around for himself and his family.
So, instead of just putting it back in the library bag and forgetting about it, I gave the book to my son and asked him to read it. He had the same “what next?” reaction I had. There’s something about Tommy and how his life transforms that’s gripping. He tells someone a secret he’s promised not to share, and you think, “Don’t do that!” but you know that Tommy really would make that mistake and many others. Life is often more of a mess and less of a neat package of problems that can be easily written into a happy ending.
In the author’s note, Levine notes that the idea of writing from the bully’s perspective came from her father’s stories about growing up and his memories of being “something of a bully” himself, although he was a popular kid. Tommy’s story is complicated and often an uncomfortable one to read, but it’s maybe closer to many of our lives – or someone we know – than we’d usually like to think. And the ending, after all, is a pretty happy one in the real world.