That’s the thing about baseball, though, is it lays you bare: play long enough and eventually who you really are will show through.
—Conviction, Kelly Loy Gilbert
Braden Raynor’s father has been the only real constant he’s known in his 16 years—his mother, who had him after a one-night stand with Mart Raynor, abandoned him when he was a few months old, and his older brother Trey left home nine years ago and hasn’t been back since.
Now Mart Raynor is on trial for killing a police officer in a hit-and-run—he says it was a terrible accident, but the police say it was straight-up murder—and Brayden, as one of the very few witnesses, is on the hook to testify. But he doesn’t want to. He tells his father’s lawyer that it’s because he’s not good in front of people—unluckily for him, you can’t really argue with a subpoena—but as Brayden reveals more and more about his life with his father, as he worries about squaring off against the dead man’s nephew in an upcoming baseball championship, as he continually avoids thinking or talking about what he saw that night, it’s impossible not to wonder what he’s hiding....
Woof. Conviction is a TOUGH book. It’s a courtroom drama, a mystery, a coming-of-age tale, and a story about family. It’s about brothers, about fathers and sons, about patterns repeating themselves over time. About how we push people away when we most need their support, about how a lack of self-worth can be contagious; about how desperation and pain can lead to psychological abuse and violence, about how emotionally confusing abuse can be, about how NOT AT ALL SIMPLE it is. There are a lot of gut punches, a lot of pain, and in a lot of ways, it’s out-and-out tragedy. But all of that is tempered by some amount of hope, too—Braden and Trey’s slowly healing, one-step-forward-two-steps-back relationship; his connection with a girl at school; his faith in God, even though he’s got some doubts in that department.
Braden’s characterization is stellar, but I was almost even more impressed with the secondary characters—they all had their own stuff going on, some directly relevant to Braden and his story, some purely their own—and none of them, including Braden’s father, ever came close to being two-dimensional, a strawman, a trope. Because so much of the action is internal—there are a lot of flashbacks, and Braden does a lot of mulling and very little talking—it’s a surprisingly quiet book, even given the courtroom drama and sports story elements.
There will no doubt be some readers who will be frustrated, who will want to shake Braden and want to scream, “THAT’S NOT LOVE, WHY ARE YOU SUPPORTING THIS GUY??”, but there will be others who recognize his journey and experience for the truth that it is. It’s not an easy book, not a comfortable book—even beyond the boys’ relationship with their father, Braden’s homophobia will be a barrier for some readers—but there’s a lot of truth in it, and a boatload of empathy. Two thumbs way up, and I’ll be watching to see what Gilbert does next.
If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or running the show at her local library, Leila Roy might be making stuff for her Etsy shop while rewatching Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Babylon 5, Black Books or Twin Peaks. Well, that or she’s hanging out on Twitter. Or both.