Book Review: A New Novel Set In Leavenworth Puts Readers On High Alert

Mar 21, 2016

Cote Smith's debut novel is full of compelling characters and captivating prose, but it's not for the faint-of-heart.

Being scared doesn't make my list of top five emotions. It's not even in the top 20. I actively dislike both roller coasters and horror movies. (In fact, a Donald Duck fire safety video I saw when I was 4 scared me enough that I can still recall scenes from the movie, vividly.) And though I'm not Polyannaish in my reading taste, I'm not a thrill seeker, either. Live radio supplies me with plenty of adrenaline.

So it's saying a lot that the weekend before Kansas author Cote Smith came on Central Standard to talk about the anxiety-laced world he created in his new novel Hurt People, I found myself glued to my seat for hours, heart thumping along to the words on the page.

Smith's book doesn't bill itself as a suspense novel, but that's what it is, with one major exception: what we're afraid of is never stated, so it reads more like a memoir or coming of age novel. The narrator is a boy too young to understand the danger of the situations he's describing. And the adults in his life are totally preoccupied with financial, romantic and workplace struggles of their own, which prevents them from seeing what we see.

That makes us, the readers, the only grown-ups around. And we may be powerless to intervene, but walking away isn't an option.

It's Leavenworth, Kansas, in the springtime, in the 1980s. Think feathered hair, single parents and so-called "latch-key kids." Think broken-down vans and roaches in the apartment.

Two boys on summer break want nothing but to go swimming in the apartment complex pool. They spend an entire morning doing nothing but calling Time and Temperature in hopes that it will get hot enough that their mom will say yes when they ask. But their recently divorced mom is too tired from long shifts at her low-wage job to muster the energy to take them. She finally agrees to let the boys go to the pool alone.

While swimming, they're so perfectly happy that nothing else matters. Not the sirens that go off, signaling either a tornado or a prison break (it is Leavenworth, after all, and either threat is a real possibility; it turns out to be an escaped convict). And not the stranger who appears poolside shortly thereafter. Over the course of the novel, this grown man appears and reappears, slowly gaining the older brother's trust by teaching him complicated dives and confiding supposedly magical secrets. Making the boy feel special when no one else can.

Meanwhile, the younger brother, our narrator, becomes a third wheel. He isn't in on the secrets. He doesn't learn the dives. And true to younger sibling-hood, he's so focused on feeling left out that what he doesn't see is a creepy grownup manipulating a kid, posing a threat to his safety.

This all takes place in the shadow of the parents' divorce. The father is a police officer angling to become Department chief; the longer the escaped convict is on the loose, the less likely that prospect becomes. He's walked out on the mother, who's now determined not to need his help. So she, too, works more. She befriends unsavory characters, partly for companionship, and partly because you have to call someone when your van breaks down.  

What Smith captures with uncanny precision is how little kids feel when they're caught in situations outside their control. How wanting to swim can feel too important to risk telling your parents about that weird guy hanging around your brother. What it's like to run through the dense woods in the summertime, not knowing who might be in there with you. How you process the news. What it's like to watch your parents struggle. What it takes to get you to speak up.

As the novel races to its conclusion, we hear sirens again. This time, a tornado.

It's hard to know, while reading Hurt People, which to fear more: what's "out there" or what's "in here."

Gina Kaufmann is the host of KCUR's Central Standard. You can reach her on Twitter: @GinaKCUR.