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The Plot: August, 1981. Changes are coming; Ry Burke, 19, knows this. The family farm is dying and he, his mother, Jo Beth, and his eleven year old sister Sarah, will have to leave. Sarah hunts the sky for changes of a different kind: meteors are supposed to be falling this summer.
Some would wonder why the three Burkes stayed so long on the farm, considering the events of 1972. That was when Marvin Burke’s physical abuse of his family became so bad, he was sent to prison. Sarah was too little to remember anything, but both Ry and Jo Beth bear the physical and emotional scars.
Back in 1972, Ry and Jo Beth and Sarah barely survived. Ry, then ten, made it through with the help of three imaginary friends: Mr. Furrington, a teddy bear; Jesus Christ; and Scowler, an angry troll. Those childish toys and companions were put aside years ago.
Then Ry hears about a prison break, from the local prison. The prison where his father is.
Marvin’s coming home to the farm he loves. He’s coming home to the wife and son who sent him away. Ry is going to need his own strength, and the kindness, wisdom and brutality of his “Unnamed Three” childhood companions to survive his father once again — unless those companions turn on him.
The Good: Scowler flashes back and forth between 1981 and 1972, slowly revealing the full horror of what ten year old Ry and his mother survived. “Survived” is a bit of an odd word to use, considering, as Ry does, that “this was the Burke farm, over four hundred acres of nothing, and [Ry] was terrified to leave it.” What type of survivor stays in the place that defines them as “victim”?
What is survival? That is what Scowler examines, both the physical survival and the emotional survival. Ry’s ten year old self, scared and alone and desperate, made his three toys real. Mr. Furrington, the stuffed teddy bear with the British accent and the warm reassurances: “You can do it. I believe in you, old boy.” Jesus Christ, a Sunday School present: “Blessings unto thou. Thy teachers have toldest thou how.” And Scowler, a hideous homemade troll of teeth and metal whose fury and bloodlust is expressed in worldless rage: “Tk, tk, tk.”
If you want, you can read Scowler as a horror story where these three toys do become real, to protect a small boy and later a young man. Or, as I do, you can read Scowler as a horror story where a person’s mind sometimes needs to invent and believe in things like the Unnamed Three to do what has to be done. Or maybe it’s simply a horror story because it contains people who believe the following to be true: “Things that emerged stronger from suffering were to be mistrusted” and “if enough time passes, the world ruins everybody.” Those are the truths one may believe on the darkest days; days like when Marvin Burke comes home.
Scowler is also a story about family; and while Ry is the main character, to me, Jo Beth is the true hero and the reason this book is set in the early 1970s and 1980s. I’m the type that wonders, why doesn’t she just leave? His abuse starts shortly after their marriage, why doesn’t she just pick up then and leave? For me, it’s easier to understand Jo Beth’s decision to stay realizing she was born about 1943, married about 1962, and so 1972 — well. 1972 isn’t 2013, is it, in terms of options for a woman in Jo Beth’s situation. It wasn’t until 1984 that The Burning Bed appeared as a TV movie, based on a 1977 incident, and yes, I think those things matter in understanding and sympathizing with Jo Beth’s decisions.
The language — the words that paint this time, this place, these people — are beautiful and horrible and terrible, and only horrible and terrible because of the horrible and terrible things they portray. Brutal things happen; a man doesn’t go to jail for over ten years “just” for hitting his wife. And that man that comes home seeking his revenge isn’t going to be content with “just” hitting. I confess, I skim-read a few pages because i had a hard time with it, and then I read the last few pages to reassure myself, and then went back to reading.
The Burke Farm in 1972 and 1981 — this is a real place, these people, their hurts and triumphs and fears, all real. Because of the horror, the easy person to name as a readalike is Stephen King. I thought of King’s portrayal of Jack Torrance; I thought of the death of a child from spinal meningitis in another book. But as I thought more, of the ties of family between mothers and sons and fathers and siblings, and of the creation of a specific place and time I thought of someone else: Pat Conroy.
So, yes, of course this is a Favorite Read in 2013.
About Elizabeth Burns
Looking for a place to talk about young adult books? Pull up a chair, have a cup of tea, and let's chat. I am a New Jersey librarian. My opinions do not reflect those of my employer, SLJ, YALSA, or anyone else. On Twitter I'm @LizB; my email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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