Monday, April 12, 2010

Review: Hoppergrass by Chris Carlton Brown

Found via: BBYA 2010 nominee

I added this to my to-be-read list before the final BBYA list was announced in January. It didn't make the final cut, which I'm pretty sure I agree with.

It's 1969 and Bowser has been sent to the Hill, a Virginia juvenile detention center. While the Hill is ostensibly integrated, the boys incarcerated there strictly adhere to racial divisions; while they might work together as assigned, black boys and white boys don't mix otherwise.

Until Bowser and Nose, one of the leaders of the African American boys, have a face off in the bathroom. To the rest of the Hill, Bowser and Nose act like enemies; privately the two become close friends, sharing stories of how they ended up on the Hill.

Until a white boy, Evan, is killed in an accident while on work duty. Shorty Nub, a sadistic and racist supervisor who has already attempted to beat Nose to a pulp once before, tries to blame Nose for the accident, calling it nothing short of murder. Bowser knows Nose, and doesn't trust Shorty Nub, and becomes obsessed with unveiling just how truly sadistic Shorty Nub is while exonerating his friend.

There's some great things about this book, but it reads as a very shallow story. While there are important and serious themes of friendship and racism, the story never digs very deep into them. The imagery is shallow (like the recurring hoppergrass - grasshoppers that Nose temporarily keeps in glass jars) and feels like it was just stuck on in an attempt to make the story a little deeper.

I did really like Bowser's character - it's absolutely impossible to tell whether he's playing the system or if he really is mentally unstable. We do know when he is telling the truth or not about events that happened, but then he'll do something like eat handfuls of paper and cigarettes. Is he crazy, or just trying to make everyone think he's crazy? Should he be held in a psychiatric hospital or is he fit to rejoin society at the end of his sentence? I really enjoyed that unstable element about him.

Bowser and Nose are about the only fully fleshed out characters in the story. Some of the other boys on Hill are interesting, but then the adults are once again quite shallow. They are all either evil or saints. Mr. Woodrow, one of the saints, is the closest to a well-rounded adult character. Miss Lovitt, the librarian that Bowser works with, is just about the only other decent character in the story, but seems to function as little other than a plot device. The not-so-good characters just get one evil trait after another piled on top of them, as if the author thought we wouldn't really believe they were bad guys unless they were some of the evilest people on the planet.
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