“Boy Underground” is the title of Catherine Ryan Hyde’s newest novel, and the title has a double meaning. On one hand, the title refers to Nick, who is main character Steven Katz’ best friend, and who is also Steven’s romantic crush. Because of an unbelievable betrayal by Nick’s father, he must hide and ends up living underground in a root cellar on Steven’s family’s huge farm. On the other hand, the title could also refer to Steven, and the fact he is gay; something he is hiding from his family and pretty much everyone else. During this time homosexuality was considered a perversion and a crime. Steven’s feelings, his identity, his persona—all are hidden “underground.”
The narration begins in 1941, when, during baseball tryouts, Steven meets Suki, a fellow high school student who is of Japanese descent, and who is trying out for the baseball team solely because his father wants him to, just as Steven’s father is insisting he try out for baseball. Neither boy makes the team, and as a result of this encounter, Suki introduces Steven to his two close friends, Ollie and Nick. The four boys form a close friendship in spite of their socio-economic differences. Steven’s father is the well-to-do owner of one of the large farms in the Northern California agricultural area while the fathers of the three other boys are farm workers, mistreated by the farmers, living in small shacks, living a subsistence lifestyle.
It’s made clear from the start that Steven’s family is a dysfunctional one, to say the least. When Steven recounts the meals that his mother makes, we learn that they are barely edible. There is little conversation at the dinner table; his older brother is hostile and detached, his father perversely prefers to talk when his mouth is filled with food, and his mother is treated as someone whose opinion doesn’t really count. Steven’s old friends, whose parents are also landowners and whom he’s grown up with, are kids he no longer wants to be around. He explains in the narration that they are narrow-minded and refer to anyone they don’t like as “faggots” or other pejoratives. For obvious reasons, that makes Steven uncomfortable.
One of the first things Steven does with his new friends is to go camping in the mountains. Steven says he’s never been to the mountains even though he’s lived there, at the foot of them, all his life. During that camping trip, Steven’s crush on Nick grows in intensity, but when they return to town, they are shocked to find many things have changed. While they were obliviously enjoying the views and cold mountain air, Pearl Harbor was attacked. Also, Nick’s father (his mother left them when Nick was very young) has drunkenly attacked a man leaving him in a coma, and has blamed the attack on Nick. In spite of Steven and the other boys’ statements that they were all together in the mountains, so Nick could not have done it, the detectives want to arrest Nick. Suki also hears rumors that the Japanese living in California will be relocated, and he’s worried.
Steven desperately wants to help his friends, and he would do anything for them. But he is only fourteen, and his parents are bigoted, uncaring, snobby, and cold-hearted. His mother tells him that, “People judge you by the company you keep,” and she asks him if his new friends are American. Although he knows what she is asking (are they Japanese?), he also knows that Suki is an American citizen. He was born in America. Steven knows that his parents won’t agree to help anyone who is not of their social status; they don’t even want him to be friends with these boys. So Steven does what he can to help and protect his friends.
Like Ryan Hyde’s earlier book, “Stay,” this narrative is told from a future time as the narrator remembers the past. At the very beginning of the tale, Steven says he is now “curiously old.” At other times, we are reminded that the narrative isn’t just a recounting of the story as it happens, but from a time in the distant future. When Steven and Nick climb the mountain a second time to look at Manzanar, the internment camp where Japanese families have been imprisoned, Steven says, “As it turned out, it would be quite different this time… But I shouldn’t get ahead of myself.”
The messages in this story are made clear by Ryan Hyde in a pretty straightforward manner. An older Chinese man, Gordon Cho, shares one of the most important messages with Steven, the rather difficult concept that he must “practice accepting that things are incomplete.” Cho explains that “to accept something means you stop trying to fight with what is.” The point is that some things can’t be changed. In Steven’s case, one of the things this comes to mean is that he must accept that his parents, with their bigotry and homophobia, will not change. He must accept that and move on. But there is so much more in his life that he must also accept: the imprisonment of the Japanese and the fact that Americans took horrible advantage of their plight, the false accusation of Nick by his father, and Ollie’s early enlistment in the military and its heartbreaking result.
One of the things that has endeared me to Catherine Ryan Hyde’s books is her superb narrative and her ability to clearly and incisively show characters’ motivations through their dialogue and action. Her writing is usually lovely and almost poetic. Because of that expectation, there are times in this novel that the narrative feels weak by comparison. When instead of describing someone’s feelings, she writes, “I might even have trouble putting it all into words,” or “and it was…I’m sorry. I honestly don’t have the words for what it was.” But that’s what she usually is so gifted at providing — the words to describe just what the characters are feeling. I wanted more.
In spite of those small lapses, we do end up with Ryan Hyde’s insightful thoughts about fate. From the year 2019, Steven catches us up on his life and the importance of fate in his life. For while Steven didn’t get what he thought he wanted at the age of fourteen, he did eventually get something better—a wonderful life filled with love and friends. And he shares another life lesson: when you give and give and give and become someone’s savior, it’s impossible to have an equal relationship. A true friendship, or romance, must be between equals. And while he grew up with a biological family who were in many aspects strangers, he later found a family where he was accepted and loved. As in many novels, we see that family is not necessarily made of blood ties, but rather of the bonds of love.
Because of the many important themes that Ryan Hyde raises, including prejudice, homophobia, family dysfunction, friendship, social status, Japanese internment, abusive parents, and the futility of war, this would be a fine choice for a book club.
This review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.