Saturday, November 3, 2012

Lean on Pete

Pictures of Hollis Woods. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The Book Thief. To Kill a Mockingbird. Number the Stars. Did those titles make your throat tighten a bit? Or perhaps make your heart palpitate?  Each of those coming-of-age novels has a special place in most everyone's bookshelf–except the occasional pretentious scholar. I believe it to be a rare and precious find when an author can create a credible, yet distinct, young adult book that resonates themes beyond the shallow. I believe those aforementioned books conjure brilliant imagery while spinning poignant narratives–and I wondered when I would once again hit upon a YA book that resides in that category. I was pleasantly surprised to find it in my most recent read: Lean on Pete by Willy Vlautin.

Charley Thompson is a fifteen-year-old kid being raised by his shifty father in the setting of Portland, Oregon. Together, they barely scrape together enough to eat–and that's kind of tough for an athletic boy who is "hungry all of the time." Charley ends up finding a job at a racing track nearby, and naturally feels a connection to the race horses who don't always have it so easy–much like himself. Then tragedy strikes and sends the young boy on a dicey journey with...one of the horses named Lean on Pete. The adventure is fraught with strange characters–some despicable, some relatable, and some comical.

Throughout the novel, of course, I wanted to advise the poor soul on his choices which didn't always pan out so well. But the tale is about a boy who'd been brought up so independently, he had no one but himself to rely upon. I, myself, forget that there are teens who aren't connected via the Twitterverse or their precious cellphones. Yes, there are children in our great country who are hungry–so hungry they must steal for food. The story made my heart ache. Great fiction does that.

While this underdog story is heartbreaking in many ways, the ending doesn't disappoint. And as I noted above, the novel–with its voice, pace, and sensory details–compared to some of the greats as I listed above, paving it's way into an eventual classic.


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