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The setting is late-1950s, small-town Missouri, where Jerry B. Blankenship's rootless family hopes to settle; the language is colloquial and old-timey; and Jerry B. is an innocent 13. (In some incidental but not thematically irrelevant episodes, he talks of his ""peter"" as a younger kid might, and shows it to shapely Sue Louise--she thinks it's ""pretty""--during a somewhat coyly described petting scene on a church hayride.) Jerry B.'s principal, Mr. Wilkes, who is also his basketball coach and eighth-grade English teacher, is new in town too, but he lacks the easy manner required to fit in. AS Jerry puts it, ""He was somehow clumsy about how he shook hands with the town."" Jerry B. gets along with him okay, though, until Halloween--when Jerry and friends go pranking and friend Danny, on Jerry's shoulder, peeks into Mr. Wilkes' window intending to scare him. Danny is so scared by what he sees that he takes off in terror, leaving Jerry behind to be caught and threatened with unspecified but presumably deadly harm if he tells. Jerry B. soon realizes that it's Nate Lemar, the local sheriff, who has caught and threatened him; and though both Danny and Jerry B. are more than willing to blot the evening from their consciousness (in fact, they don't or won't even recognize what has been seen), neither the principal nor the sheriff will let them forget. And so, through a jubilantly victorious basketball season and the usual small-town activities, Jerry B. and Danny are dogged by terror. It's a recognizable situation in juvenile fiction, and has much in common with Robbie Branscom's earthier, first (and best) novel, Me and Jim Luke (1971), in which two boys stumble onto a KKK murder. Here, though, it's clear to readers if not to the boys that what's been seen is a homosexual act, and the threat to the boys is exacerbated by the threat to Mr. Wilkes from the suspicious townspeople, Jerry B.'s parents among them. Sensing that something is ""not right"" about the new principal, the parents quiz their sons, find two boys willing to go along with the insinuations, and, never dreaming that good-old-boy Lemar might be involved, have the principal investigated by the sheriff. The incident ends in the violence that Hulse has announced on page one: to keep his own secret, the sheriff shoots and kills the principal. And only then does Jerry, outraged by the injustice and the absence of due process, tell his father what he knows. That this material is part of a suspenseful story, not a fictionalized Social Issue, is rare in juvenile fiction. Mr. Wilkes is clearly wronged; but far from being the stereotypical wronged victim, he has an unlikable, hollow manner and can be downright mean--though never as menacing as the sheriff, in whom circumstances bring out a truly sinister aspect. The adult drama, then, is shaded, and the characters honestly imagined. Appropriately, and effectively, the story's focus is on Jerry B.'s sometimes funny, mostly scary plight and his ultimate transformation from innocence to moral awareness. And funny, scary, and seriously engaging it is.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1982
Publisher: Harper & Row