The Sledding Hill, by Chris Crutcher
Man, oh, man, I love me a good Chris Crutcher book. No one is quite as stark, quite as real, quite as painful, about the dark secrets we keep in our closets. Crutcher writes about things like incest, child abuse, real anger borne of real wrongs–and he writes he like he knows so much about them, if only because he was a therapist for many years, working with troubled teens. He knows what it looks like when someone’s keeping a harmful secret for the sake of preserving that most ancient of secret societies: the family structure.
I can’t read more than one, or two, Chris Crutcher books in a row, if only because there’s only so much pain and anger one girl can take over the course of a nice afternoon spent reading, but I’ve read almost all of his works already. This one, though, is new to me. It starts out fairly normal, in Crutcher terms: we’ve got a pair of boys, Eddie and Billy. The former is grossly misunderstood, the latter relatively normal. Two horrible things happen in the space of the first few pages–Eddie’s father dies, and then his best friend Billy died–and the rest of the book is left to be narrated by Billy.
Now, Chris Crutcher isn’t going all Alice-Sebold on you. There’s no mystery to be solved here, no extra descriptions of what heaven looks like, really. Billy’s just there to tell the story, and that, story, ultimately, is Chris Crutcher’s long-standing battled against banned books and the folks who would have their children read only church-approved books with no swear words in them. The rest of the book, after Crutcher’s quick, skillful rendition of Eddie’s personality and his family and school situation shortly after his father’s and Billy’s deaths, centers around a book written by one Chris Crutcher. It’s a book that will ultimately be protested by the school board and its community members. Eddie, who has sought solace in the book and its characters after losing both his best friend and his father, takes to the book and its cause like a fish deprived of water, and that makes up the story.
I’m dying to call up Chris Crutcher and ask him why he chose to write this book. Was it because many kids don’t even know about banned books until they’re old enough to grow out of their communities and ask questions? Was it because he’d never had a chance to address these kids before in a form they might understand, a form beyond banned book rallies, stumping at schools, and angry back-and-forths all occurring above a child’s head?
I don’t know. I’m glad he wrote it, though. Crutcher could have left himself completely out of the novel as a character, but I think this must have felt very good for him, letting his readers see a side of him that they never usually see. (I’d have never guessed that he drives a red Saturn, but whatever.)
For all the times the guy’s been banned from library bookshelves, and for all the years he’s been writing (Crutcher’s first book, Running Loose, was published in 1983 and is on the American Library Association’s top 100 banned books list between 1990 and 2000), I’m shocked it took him until 2005 to write such a book.
And now, it’s back to my regularly scheduled reading. Yes, yes, it’s another Chris Crutcher.