This novel has been on my pile of books to read for a long time. It got there like many often do with recommendations from other MMGM regulars. I added THE PAPER COWBOY to my list after seeing Rosi’s shout out on THE WRITE STUFF.
Set in the early 1950’s, 12-year-old Tommy narrates the story about life in a small Illinois town with three sisters and two parents. He’s a unlikeable protagonist right from the start. Tommy’s an expert at bullying, even doing so to a kid with a disability and an overweight classmate. His words and actions hurt many. I wanted to stop reading at many points, but continued on hoping there was change coming for this troubled boy. We soon find out, his home life is what fuels many of his aggressions. A mother who in modern day would be jailed for her beatings on Tommy, and a father who looks the other way and fails to take full responsibility for his family.
Change does come through with his love of cowboys and western movies, his fear of communism, and friendships he gets while delivering papers. It’s an emotional ride that will eventually have you riding off into the sunset with a smile on your face.
Not only is this a bit hefty in length for an MG book, but it’s too bad historical fiction is tough sell in my world. Young readers want fantasy, humor, and time travel. They most likely could care less about life in 1953. I’ll keep pushing books like this to them not from the historical angle, but that they will learn a lot about what growing up is really about.
PUBLICATION DATE:2014 WORD COUNT: 79,489 LEVEL: 4.1
FULL PLOT (From Amazon): Though he thinks of himself as a cowboy, Tommy is really a bully. He’s always playing cruel jokes on classmates or stealing from the store. But Tommy has a reason: life at home is tough. His abusive mother isn’t well; in fact, she may be mentally ill, and his sister, Mary Lou, is in the hospital badly burned from doing a chore it was really Tommy’s turn to do. To make amends, Tommy takes over Mary Lou’s paper route. But the paper route also becomes the perfect way for Tommy to investigate his neighbors after stumbling across a copy of The Daily Worker, a communist newspaper.
Tommy is shocked to learn that one of his neighbors could be a communist, and soon fear of a communist in this tight-knit community takes hold of everyone when Tommy uses the paper to frame a storeowner, Mr. McKenzie. As Mr. McKenzie’s business slowly falls apart and Mary Lou doesn’t seem to get any better, Tommy’s mother’s abuse gets worse causing Tommy’s bullying to spiral out of control.
FIVE THINGS TO LIKE ABOUT: THE PAPER COWBOY by Kristen Levine
- You will marvel at how the author ties up the many plot points threading through the story. It’s not a neatly tied bow at the end, but that’s the way life’s problems are sometimes. It’s a beautiful thing when treated with such care as Ms. Levine has done.
- The diverse cast of neighbors who provide growth and support for Tommy’s family. A huge reminder to get to know your own neighbors. There’s so much more to them than what you see from across the street.
- Life without cell phones or computers is a pleasant reminder how the world used to be. Today’s constant need to be always on was back then a time for talking with family, neighbors, reading, and a variety of outdoor activities.
- I’d use this one in a history class with older students learning about the Cold War. There are so many gems of discussion possibilities that fly off the pages.
- The author’s notes that this is based on her father’s life. I think other adults may see themselves as one of the characters presented here and in turn understand themselves a little better.
FAVORITE LINES: As we mixed and baked, my thoughts were mixed-up too. I knew communists were bad and evil. I knew they wanted to deny us, and even their own people, freedom of speech. Commies didn’t believe in freedom of religion either. Heck, they didn’t believe in religion at all. The Reds wanted to take all the businesses away from their owners and give them to the government. According to Mr. Sullivan, they might even be planning to drop an atomic bomb on Chicago! So why did I kind of like Mrs. Glazov? What was wrong with me?
AUTHOR QUOTE: “My hope for my readers is that they, much like Tommy in THE PAPER COWBOY, will never stop striving to finds ways to create a supportive community in their own lives.” (Kristin’s website)
Check the links to other Middle Grade novels over at Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.
Glad to hear that Tommy does grow. But it must have been hard to read when he started out so unlikeable. And a world without cellphones? Hard to imagine anymore.
This sounds like a tough book to get through, but worth the uncomfortable effort.
This didn’t circulate well in my library last year, but I’m hoping to push more 1950s and 1960s historical fiction this year. One that will do well? Holm’s Sunny Side Up graphic novel set during the Bicentennial! Paper Cowboy was a good book, and there will be a few serious 8th grade boys who will pick it up.
This was a hard book to read, but it was certainly worth the effort. Glad you appreciated it as much as I did. Thanks for the reminder of a really good book.
Quite a challenge for the writer to pull off an “unlikeable” MC! I’d like to see more fiction like this at the MG level.
I’ve seen this around and been wanting to pick it up. I really like that it’s set during the Communist scare, and it sounds like Tommy learns a lot. I like books that are worth the effort. Paperboy was a lot like that. And I loved Levine’s Lions of Little Rock!
This is my kind of book! I grew up during that period of time and I remember so many of the things you mentioned! It was the best of times to be a kid, but also fear began to creep in in the late 1950s. I look forward to reading this one. Thanks!
Sorry that I didn’t get the chance to comment sooner! I think this book sounds really cool, because not many books are written in the bully’s point of view. Need to find this one soon! Thanks!