An abused boy finds comrades-in-arms among his fellow inmates when he’s sent to a remote reform school high in the Rocky Mountains.
Texas-based debut novelist Hilton employs a clear-eyed adolescent voice in this story of a young man lost in the wilderness. The story is set in 1963 and stars the tough-as-nails William Sheppard, a 13-year-old from Chicago’s South Side. After years of abuse at the hands of his alcoholic father, Will stabs him (though not fatally) with his Davy Crockett Explorers penknife. For his crimes, a judge sends the young man to the Swope Ranch Boys' Reformatory, a desolate and corrupt detention center on Colorado’s rugged west slope. On his very first day, Will is attacked by Eddie Tokus, for the simple reason that it’s the school’s tradition to let the last boy in beat on the next inmate—with the reformatory’s wardens and guards betting on the ferocious contest. He wins, earning the nickname “Nosebleed.” “Maybe that’s what the ranch is,” he offers. “It’s the same universal rule any kid faces: swim with the group or sink alone.” To keep his hide among the den of thieves and hooligans, Will befriends three other boys: Coop Kingston, a regretful firebug who burned his adopted family’s home to the ground; Micky Baines, whose rebellious nature is overwhelmed by frontier violence; and Benny Fritch, an innocent who was sent up because he took the rap for his little brother. The winding tale of their passage through this world is marked by inevitable violence, first from Frank Kroft, the chief guard who kills one of the boys. Later, their bond is shattered by the introduction of John Church, a prisoner who deserves his sentence because of his uncontrollable rage. No one is left unmarked, especially Will.
Not altogether unflawed, but a heartfelt portrait of young men in a bygone age.