cover image The Paper Cowboy

The Paper Cowboy

Kristin Levine. Putnam, $16.99 (352p) ISBN 978-0-399-16328-9

Inspired by her father's childhood, Levine (The Lions of Little Rock) explores the charged emotions of the McCarthy era in a hard-hitting story set in suburban Chicago. "Cowboys have scars. Bad guys have scars. Sisters aren't supposed to have scars," thinks 12-year-old Tommy, who feels guilty after his older sister, Mary Lou, is severely burned while doing his chores. Tommy's mother, already volatile, becomes even more so, verbally and physically abusing Tommy. Tommy's own anger builds, and he hurts others in turn. He steals from the general store and, when reprimanded, plants a found copy of The Daily Worker at the store, putting its owner in jeopardy. Tommy and his friends also bully the storeowner's overweight son, "Little Skinny," who has burn scars and a dying mother. Levine creates a believably frustrated and overwhelmed protagonist in Tommy, who is goodhearted at his core, but struggles mightily to do the right thing as tragedies and setbacks rush at him. It's a thoughtful story about understanding and compassion, distinguished by complex characters and a supportive, tight-knit community. Ages 10%E2%80%93up. Agent: Kathryn Green, Kathryn Green Literary Agency. (Sept.)