Friday, June 28, 2013
YA Friday: WINGER by Andrew Smith
Okay, so occasionally the MG Mafiosi stray into YA territory, usually at the recommendation of some YA guru like Matt MacNish. For a while now, Matt has been trumpeting the praises of Andrew Smith and then, well, I heard Andrew's latest novel was about rugby and I knew I had to read it.
Some of you may know I'm originally from England. Less of you know that, from the age of 9 until 17, I was a pupil at an English boarding school located on the Yorkshire moors. As with most British "public" schools (which are actually private schools), the main winter sport was rugby--and I played in rugby teams from the age of ten until I left the school in my final year as a member of the 2nd XV. (I originally played second row, but as I got older I was moved to wing--which for those of you in the rugby know is a very curious transition.)
Which brings me to WINGER. It too is set in a boarding school--although a co-educational one. (My school was all-boys until about 20 years ago when they allowed girls to enter. About time!) The school is located in Oregon, which is where I now live. The main character, Ryan Dean West, is so clever that he is a 14-year-old high school junior. He's also very fast, as a rugby winger has to be. [More similarities: I was a 14-year-old sophomore, so Ryan Dean is only a wee bit cleverer than me.]
Don't you agree that this novel has my name on it? I started it one morning and read all the way through in one sitting, it was that compelling. From the first scene, with Ryan Dean being held over a toilet by a pair of football playing thugs, the book has an air of menace to it. The menace continues throughout--the weather becomes a character, in typical dreary wintry Oregon fashion--and there are several violent episodes, including a knifing, which are harbingers of a tragedy to come.
Yet it is also a very funny book, and a book about friendship. A lot of this has to do with Ryan Dean's energetic take on the world, and the cartoons he draws which frequently make it onto the novel's pages. What's more, Andrew Smith has a pitch-perfect ear for the teen voice--and several times I had to stop to pinch myself that this wasn't being written by an actual teenager.
It is very true to boarding school life, with underage drinking, rivalries, and plenty of petty and not so petty cruelties. I won't spoil the ending, but I was not alone among readers (if Twitter is to be believed) in finding tears flowing down my face as I read it.
Friendships sustain us, and they sustain Andrew Smith's characters. But cruelty is also part of the human condition. The bullies who attack Ryan Dean in the novel's first pages, and who are responsible for the book's sad denouement, are not, in my experience, too far-fetched. In my boarding school, there were definitely a couple of characters that everyone in their right mind tried to stay away from. They were sadistic tormentors of younger boys. One of them in particular was a very talented individual and extremely skillful on the rugby field. But he had cold, cruel eyes and a penchant for violence which was truly unnerving. (Now that I'm old I wonder what it was in his personal life that drove him to such cruelty. But as a youth I knew just to duck and cover.)
My high-school junior read the front flap and wanted to read the book immediately. I would recommend it to high schoolers, with the knowledge that there are no punches pulled with the mature subject matter and the frequency of cuss words. As for me, I was thoroughly captivated by it, and will remember it for a long time. Thanks, Matt MacNish, for introducing me to Andrew Smith. I'm heading off to read his other novels now.