A Review of Stick by Andrew Smith
Feiwel and Friends, 2011
By REBECCA, August 10, 2012
Stark (Stick) McClellan: Born with only one ear, Stick is used to hearing the world a little slant
Bosten McClellan: A high school junior with a temper who wants to be free of his father
Emily Lohman: Stick’s best friend, who shows him how a family could be
Aunt Dahlia: Stick and Bosten’s great-aunt who lives in a cozy bungalow in California and introduces them to the wonders of surfing, sleeping in, and Evan and Kim Hansen
Evan & Kim Hansen: Twin surf angels who take Stick and Bosten under their wetsuited wings
14-year-old Stick has always had his brother, Bosten, to look out for him, but when their abusive father learns that Bosten is gay, Bosten has to leave home. Once Bosten leaves, Stick takes his dad’s car and sets out to find him, thinking he headed to Aunt Dahlia’s house in California. Without much money or any connections, Stick finds himself in, erm, sticky situations (sorry!), which he handles because he has no other choice.
Stick and Bosten’s cold, perfectionist mother and violent, exacting father have turned their house into an army barracks. There are rules to follow—the boys can’t have hair longer than half an inch, must always tuck in their shirts, can’t wear pajamas, can only shower on the weekends—and consequences if those rules are broken. Not only beatings, but being locked for days in what Stick calls St. Fillan’s room, the spare bedroom that is bare except for a sheeted cot and a bucket. Both Stick and Bosten, though, are warm, hungry for love beyond each other’s. Bosten is in love with his best friend, Paul, who runs hot and cold on him, and Stick feels awed and humbled by the love his best friend, Emily, shows him. The world of Stick, then, contains two extremes of love—the depths of joy that can come from intimacy as well as its poisonous inversion when intimacy is used as a weapon.
The structure of the book was particularly interesting: it’s kind of folded in half. It’s divided into three sections, where the first is about Stick and Bosten’s life in Washington, the second about their visit to California to stay with Aunt Dahlia, and the the third the journey from the former to the latter, again, when Stick makes the same journey to follow Bosten. I bring this up because it facilitates one of my favorite thing about both Stick and Andrew Smith‘s work more generally (you can check out my review of The Marbury Lens here), which is that his novels take us to many different places, but each of them feels like the novel’s home when we’re in it. When Stick is in Washington, and the brothers are going to basketball games, getting into fights, and going to school in the damp chill, I feel fully sunk in that world as a reader; same with when they’re surfing in bright California. Then, when Stick travels to California to follow Bosten, the genre of the book really changes, from being an interpersonal drama to being a kind of adventure-quest-thriller. It doesn’t feel like a shift at all, though, but rather a natural outgrowth of the world and characters to which Smith has introduced us.
did this book live up to its intentions?
A thousand times, yes. Stick is a book that has so many things going for it that it’s hard to know where to begin. Wonderful characters who have deep relationships with each other? Check. Stick and Bosten’s conversations are as elliptical and offhand as tight siblings’ can be. Serious emotional and physical threats that bring out those characters’ depths and fears? Double check. Stick and Bosten’s father is chilling, but in a human way, so he can’t be written off as exaggeration or romanticization. Similarly, some of the people that Stick meets on his way to California (about which, obviously, I’m being quite vague, because I don’t want to give things away) exemplify the kind of terrifying way that the world feels out of your control at 14. Still, Stick is a survivor, so strongly drawn is he to get to California and make sure Bosten is all right (you might remember that I featured Stick in my list YA Summer Survival Kit: A Crash Course for the Apocalypse.)
Stick is also a beautiful exploration of very different types of masculinity. Throughout the book, we get many examples of how Stick and Bosten’s father things men should be, down to his conviction that men don’t wear pajamas or use shampoo. Bosten and Stick don’t agree with their father’s notions, but, as Stick says, they never even thought about the rules. It’s just the way things are. Being gay does not, of course, align with their father’s notions of how a man should act (although, further, we get hints that perhaps these rules are as much for Mr. McClellan to clarify for himself how he feels he must be as they are for his sons). Throughout Stick, then, Stick is exposed to multiple models of all the other ways to be a man there are besides his father’s, some violent, some desperate, some generous.
Stick is a wonderfully-written, exciting, and moving story about brothers, about need, and about the many ways we can rescue each other. I couldn’t recommend it more highly.
I love love love books where siblings are best friends because my sister and I are planning to take over the world! Also, I love the cover of this book so much.
The Brothers Bishop by Bary Yates (2005). A totally amazing book about brothers, love, obligation, sex, archaeology, and the ocean.
Punkzilla by Adam Rapp (2009). The voice in Punkzilla is extraordinary. I sort of feel like Bosten and Punkzilla would meet and Bosten would adopt Punkzilla because he would remind him of Stick.
My Heartbeat by Garret Freymann-Weyr (2002). A short and lovely book about the relationship between Ellen, the older brother that she adores, and his best friend and lover.
procured from: bought