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A Chair, A Fireplace & a Tea Cozy
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Review: Rapture Practice

Rapture Practice by Aaron Hartzler. Little, Brown & Co. 2013. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

It’s About: Aaron Hartzler’s memoir about growing up in an ultra-religious Christian family. It is funny; touching; rebellious; believing; and loving.

The Good: I have a bit of a fascination with religion, especially those that say they have the answers. In a world that is at times messy, and unclear, how reassuring to have, well, a guidebook telling you what to do. I watch shows like 19 Kids and Counting or Polygamy USA and wonder, what about the kids who aren’t satisfied with such a black and white worldview? What happens when that guidebook doesn’t work for you?

Rapture Practice is about one of those kids.

Hartzler writes with love and honesty and respect for his parents, their religion, and the way they raised him and his siblings. His parents do everything they can to have young Aaron and his siblings follow the path of his parents, including keeping such secular things as popular music, television, and movies out of their lives and having all the children attend strict Christian schools.

Young Aaron believes: “when I say we believe that Jesus is coming back, I don’t mean metaphorically . . . I mean literally, like glance out of the car window and, “Oh, hey, there’s Jesus in the sky.” Yet as time goes by, he cannot help but question; cannot help but have questions that his parent’s doctrine doesn’t answer.

Such as, what is so wrong with popular music? Or movies? Why does his father not see that the messages found there can be about love, or friendship, or forgiveness? Is watching the movie Pretty Woman really a danger?

As Aaron grows, he begins to do more and more things that he knows his parents would disapprove of; or, worse, be disappointed by, because disobeying them, and rebelling against them, is the same as rebelling against Jesus. He knows that he shouldn’t, but he does — he goes to movies. He listens to rock music. He dreams of becoming an actor. He pays attention to the clothes he wears. He watches TV at his friends’ houses. He tries a beer. He kisses girls. He drinks. He does all the things his parents don’t want him to. And yet — yet he wants to please his parents. He wonders why he has to pick; why he has to lie.

Some things I cannot emphasize enough: just how funny Rapture Practice is. And just how loving Aaron’s parents are. This is not a memoir about abusive religious parents. Aaron’s parents love him and want what is best for him; they believe and they want Aaron to believe. They have created a warm, loving, caring family. Rapture Practice is one reason I like non-fiction, because this type of complexity, that Aaron’s parents can be both loving and restrictive, warm and controlling, is something hard to find in fiction. Aaron’s moment of coming of age is not embracing independence by moving on from his family; rather, it’s the recognition that he has to accept them as they are in the same way that he desires to be accepted by them.

Part of Aaron’s high school years includes relationships with girls. It’s part of what could get him in trouble with his parents and his school, because saving oneself for marriage is something taken very seriously. Yet, it’s also part of what Aaron does to fit in, to hide from himself and his parents and his friends that he may like boys. It’s heartbreaking, reading how Aaron sits through classes about the abomination of homosexuality, and his take away is a that the two guys shown kissing are look like him; “it looked like they were nice guys who were nice to each other.” Kissing girls hides this the world, and from himself. But as I said, see the humor even here, in that the very film whose point was to show Aaron just how wrong being gay is instead ended up being one of the series of things leading him to the recognition that he likes boys; and that people who are gay weren’t so different after all. So it’s sad and it’s funny; and I want to say to Aaron, it’s going to be OK; and I’m glad that since this is a memoir, it’s a built in spoiler that it gets better for Aaron.

Yes; this is a Favorite Book Read in 2013. Because it is warm and wonderful and full of joy; while at the same time, showing just how damaging narrowness can be.

Other reviews: Forever Young Adult; The Nervous Breakdown Interview; Lambda Literary Review; Book Riot; Leila Roy (Bookshelves of Doom) at Kirkus; The Librarian Writer.

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


  1. I love this book. It’s one of my favorites so far this year, as well. He does a very nice job balancing his humor with the seriousness of the situations.

    • Elizabeth Burns says:

      Katy, I really liked it! I think Jonathan raises some things that a committee would be considering. speaking of, note to self: remember to nominate this.

      • Those things didn’t bother me as much, primarily because it was narrated in present tense. I don’t think he was ready to come to terms with those things himself at that point. I would love to read what happens when he goes to college and beyond.

        Having said that, I completely understand how people could feel disappointed by the lack of a more concrete coming out moment. However, considering when this took place, it makes sense to me that there wouldn’t be one during the book. Thinking back to when I was a teen (which was about the same time period and in a fairly conservative area), I can’t remember anyone coming out until after high school and those who did really struggled with it. Their families, churches, and society in general was much less accepting, and as a result they lived with a lot of internal conflict and confusion, and often weren’t honest with themselves. So, in that sense, the narrative makes sense to me as written. As for his religious views, I actually thought he was fairly critical of them considering the home and church environment he was raised in. No, I don’t know where he stands now, but I don’t think that was the point of the narrative. For me, the point was to show the way the moments when those doubts began and how they grew. It’s about these moments of internal conflict, and that conflict that might not have immediate resolution.

        If the narrative had been presented through the lens of adult retrospection, it would make this a very different book. I would still enjoy that book, but I don’t know if I would have been as caught up in the narrative as I was with the book that he wrote. That’s largely a matter of personal taste, though. Personally, I don’t need resolution to narrative conflicts, but I know that isn’t necessarily true for others.

  2. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Liz, I liked this book for all the reasons that you mention, but there are some things about it that bothered me, too, and I’m having a hard time articulating them. Maybe “bothered” isn’t the right word; I should say instead that there are things that kept this book from reaching its full potential.

    I’ve read some reader responses that are disappointed that he doesn’t come out before the end of the book. I’m not necessarily in that camp, but I do think it comes across as somewhat coy that he chooses not to “address” this more fully and satisfactorily. I get that he’s chosen to write this in the present tense, giving it that sense of YA immediacy without that intrusive adult perspective. I don’t know that Hartzler’s completely honest with the reader about his emerging sexuality, and I think that retrospective perspective could have helped him achieve a greater degree of it. He’s also pretty guarded about how he feels about religion. Do you modify your parents’ Christianity to suit your needs–or do you cast it off altogether? We just don’t have any sense at the end of the book how he feels about either his religion or sexuality.

    Because we aren’t privy to those two internal conflicts, this becomes just another story about a rebellious teenager defying an authority figure. I probably sound more down on the book than I really am. I just thought it had so much potential–I mean potential to be one of the Great Ones. Still a good book and highly recommended. And I’m still trying to think my way through so if you see it a different way then I’d love to hear about it.

    • Elizabeth Burns says:

      Jonathan, the choice of ending it at the end of high school — and being a memoir — meant that two things that happen after high school didn’t happen here: coming out and leaving (if that’s the right way to put it) his parent’s religion.

      Wouldn’t it make this book weaker to have the wisdom earned by those post-book events coloring the actions of these books, such as his being with girls but not quite being articulate enough & aware to know what was wrong? Hartzler-then wasn’t honest with himself, and I think that comes through, and I think that is part of an underlying sadness here, that he’s been put into a position that he doesn’t know because he hasn’t been given the vocabulary or examples to know himself. I think as soon as the reader sees the child drawing wedding dresses they have a clue — as many clues as Hartzler or his parents had, but the reader has a broader life-knowledge, if that makes sense.

      So should this book have gone on for another two or four years? Not to back away from answering, but I think I need to read the sequel first, to judge whether splitting this between 2 books is best for the overall narrative.

    • Elizabeth Burns says:

      Oh, and one other thing. A criticism I’ve heard is that the book begins with too young a voice. That didn’t bother me; it worked, for me, to have that grow as Hartzler grew.

  3. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Well, consider how guilty Hartzler genuinely feels about a number of very minor “sins,” but then when it comes to the comparatively big “sin” of being attracted to boys, he feels no guilt, remorse, shame, angst whatsoever. None? It’s as natural as breathing. That’s the false note for me. He hasn’t been conditioned to think that way. I think the adult Hartzler censors the teen Hartzler and I get why he does it. Since there’s no closure on his sexuality in this book, he’s not going to leave readers–especially gay teen readers–with, at best, a confused, muddled message about being gay, and, at worst, a hostile, anti-gay vibe. So if you’re going to let the adult Hartzler sneak in, then why not be overt about it? Be consistent. Either do the present tense thing throughout or let the adult intrude.

    Let me emphatically reiterate that I do not need closure on his sexuality or his religion. What I would have liked to see is a better sense of his internal conflict regarding these things. Instead, the conflicts in this book are dominated by the struggle between Aaron and his authoritarian parents and his drive to become a performer. We can trace Aaron’s relationship with his father throughout the novel, but we can’t do the same for his relationship with the Lord, can we? Of course, what Hartzler does write, he writes *very* well, but I think if he had let the readers into his head a little bit more regarding faith and sexuality then *everybody* would be talking about this book instead of just the three of us.

    • I will say that as much as I, personally, enjoyed the book, I wasn’t necessarily thinking about it as a potential award-winning book. I enjoyed it and there are people I’ve recommended it to, but it didn’t stand out to me in that way. It was a great light (all thinks considered), fun summer read, and that’s how I usually present it to people. It isn’t fluff, but it has that fun tone and that is what I think will get some readers who are otherwise reluctant to read about difficult issues to consider the book. But, do I think it will win one of the big award? Probably not.

  4. Elizabeth Burns says:

    Jonathan, I’m going to have to disagree with you in terms of that — he feels attracted to boys and buries it so deep that he continues to date girls and presents that self to the world. I could probably also make an argument that his continued, steady rebellions to this point about music, films, career choices have created the place in Aaron where he realizes that the rules are arbitrary/meaningless so when he watches that film and it clicks together in his head, he doesn’t have the angst that the films did because he’s already worked through that. Had he bought into everything, been the Good Boy in all things, then things may have been different. And, to require closure would be to require either changing the truth of his life, or suddenly intruding with an adult’s voice and perspective and I think that would result in an overly didactic tone.

  5. Elizabeth Burns says:

    Katy, I’m self indulgent here in that my favorites are just that, and not predictions for awards. I’m sad that the BBYA is no more because this would have been perfect for that list. What does that leave, from YALSA, for lists? ENYA, and since the vetted noms are made public, I think this will likely get on that nom list (note to self to nominate it). How ENYA treats memoir is a whole other question.
    Then there are the Printz and the Morris: Kelly over at Stacked thinks this is a possible contender for the Morris, and I would love to see that there if for no other reason than to show that Morris is more than fiction.
    Since ALSC goes up to age 14, I think there is an argument that this could make Notables.

  6. I try to keep myself from thinking too much about possible awards until October or so, but I have lists of favorites. Those favorites are simply based on my gut reaction to them. I’ll be much more analytical when I have more books to compare them to, but right now it seems much too early for me to speculate. I can’t completely turn it off, but this early in the year, I’m primarily thinking about how I can promote books to others. Having said that, there are a couple picture books I already have high hopes for. Having said all that and not knowing the quality of books to come, the Morris might be nice.

  7. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I can totally see this in the Stonewall/Lambda conversation (obviously), the Morris conversation, and the ENYA conversation (especially because it’s such a weak year for nonfiction). The Printz would be a surprise, but the Printz always has a surprise or two, doesn’t it?

    I’m not buying the he-buried-it-so-deep-he-doesn’t-know-what’s-going-on interpretation. Certainly, I think it sneaks up on him and it’s only in hindsight (as an adult–in the next book?) that he realizes some of those nascent thoughts, feelings, and emotions for what they were. But by the time he holds that boy’s hand at the skating rink and takes his number . . . Come on! There at least has to be some internal conflict. Am I gay? Do I like both boys and girls? What would my family think? What would God think? There’s none of that.

    Liz said, “When he watches that film [I’m assuming you’re referencing the gay pride footage where he realizes the normalcy of gay people] and it clicks together in his head, he doesn’t have the angst that the films did because he’s already worked through that.” But, see, I don’t think he really has worked through it, at least he hasn’t told the reader that he’s worked through it. He hasn’t shown us in painstaking detail the way that he did with all his previous little rebellions. Why shield that from the reader?

  8. This is a great memoir for any age, but it will speak particularly to teens because he writes about his teenage years. It’s exceptionally well-written, honest, funny, and poignant. I added it to my church’s library collection because we’re open & affirming and have many LGBTQ members. I’m not going second-guess Hartzler on the depth of his internal conflicts or how revealing he is about his faith or sexuality. He’s telling his personal story and he can do it any damn way he pleases. He just so happens do it really well in this book. Hartzler’s book reminds of another memoir I read recently that explores similar issues, My Almost Certainly Real Imaginary Jesus by Kelly Barth (Arktoi, 2012).

    I agree with you, Elizabeth, about BBYA. YALSA really fucked up dissolving that list and breaking up that list into genres.

    • Elizabeth Burns says:

      Ed, I’ll look for the Barth book.

      To step back: I try to focus on the book for what it is; what it intended to do; did it deliver? (I am struggling with another book about that, as you’ll see in a couple of weeks.) From that, I think the book delivers. Now, that people wanted a different book? That’s a different issue; and it sounds like his second book may be what people wanted here. But, you cannot change a person’s life.