The Paper Cowboy is the story of a young teen boy who would rather stir up trouble and bully folks than listen to the frequently resonating and difficult questions that pummel him inside. His bullying can be pointed to anyone, and in some ways, he is living out the ugliness his mom is throwing his way in her increasing emotional and physical beatings. His sister gets seriously burned in a fire and Tommy feels he is to blame for that, so he takes all the beatings his mother will lay out on him. He bullies school mates, one "Little Skinny" in particular. He escalates his nastiness to new heights when he places a communist newspaper in the stack of papers used to wrap purchased items at Little Skinny's fathers' store. Set in the 1950's US when McCarthy is out to accuse and prosecute any communist, real or imagined, the store's image never recovers the emotional and social beating Little Skinny's father takes because of that single page that wraps an item from the store. Tommy knows what he did was wrong so he searches for who the communist in his community really is while keeping his actions secret. Tommy is one bad dude, ugly in many ways, and as tensions grow for all of his mean actions, an equal and paradoxical questioning resonates inside of him. Kind adults and young people, forgiving and resilient, show up in interesting moments, offering Tommy new footing and ways of being.
Levine amazes me. Her book is 330+ pages long, an uncommon book length for this age group, but not a page is wasted. The storyline both deep and realistic, she aptly weaves her own memoir-like history into this tale. I love how she reveals her mission at the end of the text, offering information that both surprised and further engaged me. This is a difficult and beautiful read, worth engaging in during our winter season. A beautiful tale without question.