Thoughts on writing and reading for boys and young men.
There comes a time in every rightly-constructed boy's life when he has a raging desire to go somewhere and dig for hidden treasure. -Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Featured Book: Shift

In Shift by Jennifer Bradbury, friends Chris and Win—known as Chrisandwin by everyone at school for their attached-at-the-hip nature, decide to take a cross-country bike trip from their home in West Virginia to Washington state following their high school graduation.  It’s both a last-hurrah before going off to separate colleges and a way to avoid the minimum wage drudgery of a summer job.  But something goes not quite as planned—at least for Chris. He and Win (short for Winston) get separated towards the end of the journey. And when Chris returns home, heads off to college in mid-August, he learns that his friend never returned home at all.  He faces not only the prospect that something terrible happened to his best friend, but also pressure from Win’s father (who’s hired several people to “tail” Chris—including an F.B.I. agent—and threatened to disrupt Chris’s education or even end his dad’s job) to give Win up, convinced that he knows where his son is, what’s happened to him. Or even that he had something to do with his disappearance.
Shift by Jennifer Bradbury
Atheneum Books, 2008
Cover art by Greg Stadnyk
The chapters alternate between the aftermath of Win’s disappearance on the bike trip and the bike trip itself. Bradbury uses this broken time effectively, offering pieces of the mystery just as we need them and staging the action for the most emotional impact when the mystery is finally “solved” (HINT: the why in this novel is the key to the mystery and the emotional heart of the story, as it should be with any good mystery novel—thanks for that lesson, Mary Logue!). I’m using a similar structure for a novel I’m currently working on, and Bradbury’s offered here an example of how it can work really, really well.

Friendship, obviously, is central to Shift. But I’ll get to that in a minute. I also want to talk about fathers, which are also an important part of this story.  Early in the novel, Chris’s dad pulls him aside and tells him to stop just talking about taking the bike trip. Set a date.  And no matter what happens, leave on that date. Apparently he had dreamed about, talked about, saved up for a driving trip along Route 66 when he was much younger. But that’s all he did—prepare. He never did it.  He doesn’t want his son to have that same regret. Later in the novel, both when Chris is on the actual trip and when he’s being harassed by Win’s dad, Chris’s dad is sympathetic, understanding, patient, wise. But believably so. He’s a father you don’t often find in YA literature. He’s refreshing. And I’m glad we have his moment of regret early in the novel, because otherwise he would have seemed a little too one-dimensionally “perfect.”

Win’s dad, on the other hand, is a father figure we’re more accustomed to seeing in YA lit.  Controlling, angry, concerned about family and personal image. He has incessantly chipped away at Win’s spirit for eighteen years.  But Bradbury tempers his otherwise unsympathetic antagonism by letting us see, through Chris’s eyes, him crack a little under the pressure of searching for his missing son. During a scene in which he comes to Chris’s college to bully him into giving up whatever information he has about Win, Chris sees that he’s shaken, almost panicky, under his seemingly cool demeanor. Chris wonders, and we wonder, if maybe it’s not just pride or his son’s shot at the Ivy Leage (Win’s late for reporting to school at this point) that he’s worried about. Maybe he’s actually—finally—worried about losing his son

But in the end, this is a story of friends. Of friendship. Of growing up. Of separation. They start their biking journey as Chrisandwin, together (as friends, as their fathers’ sons).  They end their journey, and the story, as Chris. And Win.

There’s a great scene in a barn in chapter twenty, in which Chris and Win have an all-out, no-holds-barred wrestling match.  They’re not angry at each other, exactly. They just wrestle, as boys do. But the reader senses there’s more at stake than just bragging rights in this match. Chris flashes back to a church revival they came across on their trip, in which the preacher talked about Jacob having to wrestle an angel.  The physicality of the boys working out whatever it is that they need to work out works well.  They’re boys. They don’t talk. At least not about emotion. They act. Even the Jacob v. Angel reflection works well. And when Win demands Chris let him go, we know he’s not talking about him letting him out of the near-pin he has him in. He means LET ME GO. For good.  Then he tells him he’s been a good friend.  A true friend. It's a powerful scene.

The wrestling sequence is just one example of how well Bradbury captures not only a teen male voice but the teen male world.  Chris is thoughtful, smart, and articulate, but he’s still a guy and thinks and feels as guys have been conditioned to (especially teenage guys, especially when it comes to emotion). There’s one point, during the end of the book, where she falters a bit, though.  Just preceding what is otherwise an excellent scene (which I’ll discuss in a moment), Bradbury has Chris recall, for several paragraphs, a long-sleeved T-shirt that he really likes and used to wear all the time. He’s literally outgrown it (oversimplified version: Win=T-shirt). This is a little too obvious. Too clichéd. And way too much telling.  Especially for a boy. Everything else in the novel is visceral. Punches we can feel. The wrestling match does the trick. As does the following scene. The shirt isn’t necessary.

Fortunately, this sequence is followed by the scene I just mentioned. Chris is alone with his bike at the end of the trip (Win has already bailed on him).  He rolls his wheel into the ocean and says, “We made it. To no one. Then he revises, “I made it.”  And between this scene and the barn scene, and the hundreds of hints all along the journey, we get understand: Chrisandwin—as noted above—is now Chris. And Win.

Recommended for boys ages 14-17.

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