Author, Grant Farley, takes from his own life growing up in northern California in the 70s for his debut novel, “Bones of a Saint” (Soho 2021). Fifteen-year-old RJ is a clever and irresistible “bad boy” who lives in a trailer and cares for his younger siblings while their mother works hard for low wages. RJ is especially protective of his disabled brother, Charley. And when Charley becomes endangered, RJ steps up.
The dead-end town of Arcangel has been ruled for generations by a gang, the Blackjacks. The gang spends its energy enlisting the poorest young people to continue its criminal legacy. The police turn their heads. Heck, members of the gang are police. The Blackjacks have left RJ alone—until now.
Ed the Head says, “The Blackjacks are POed at that old city dude for buying the Miller place. He stole their best flatland hangout.” The Blackjacks decide that RJ must drive the old man out of his newly purchased home.
RJ has one friend, Manny, who’s pretty different from him, but they’re both poor and live under little supervision. RJ says, “I’m skinny and he’s fat. I’ve got five younger sibs and he’s got four sisters. I lost my dad when I was three and his sister Theresa killed their mom just getting born…” His information comes out fast, succinct, and unique.
So RJ sets out to drive out the old man, Mr. Leguin. But he likes him. Clever RJ tells stories, but the old man tells better stories. They entertain each other and convey information by metaphor.
RJ’s mostly-Catholic world view is pretty much summed up here: “Mr. Sanders, with his Canterbury Tales, he taught me about pilgrims that lived in a past that went back hundreds and hundreds of years. And Father Speckler, with his New Testament, he preached about a future that won’t come until forever and ever, amen. Neither way does me any good now against the Blackjacks. All I can do is live in my own here and now.”
RJ knows he could disregard the Blackjack directive. He also knows there would be big consequences. He says, “Maybe God made free will just for His fun. If God cranks the world up and lets it go without knowing where it’s headed, well that’s got to be a whole lot more fun for him.” Free will or fate. Catholics side with free will. Hope you get an idea of the unique and fabulous voice here.
The story twists and turns and Mr. Leguin delivers information to RJ which just might help the teen escape his rough circumstances and release the town from the grip of the Blackjacks. Know any clever young readers who want to read a unique voice? Or such an adult?
Patricia Hruby Powell is the author of the award-winning Lift As You Climb; Josephine; Loving vs Virginia; and Struttin’ With Some Barbecue all signed and for sale at Jane Addams bookstore. She teaches community classes at Parkland. talesforallages.com