Friday, November 18, 2016

Chris Crutcher And the Seatbelted Toilets of Northern Idaho

Several years ago, I read a book called Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes.  This was pre-blogging, pre-Goodreads and possibly pre-internet, so all I really remember about it is that it was good.  (It's on my Goodreads to-read list, because I'd like to re-read it before rating it.)

More recently (2014), I was teaching language arts and my department did a "Bullying" unit in which kids chose from a list of books to read.  Among them was Whale Talk.  It was really good.  I realized that it had the same author as that book I'd read years before, and thought, huh, I should remember this guy.  I figured he was a young writer, because his teenagers sounded so real, like the kids I work with every day.  I also noted that he was from the inland NW, an area that doesn't get much attention in books.  Finally, both books were (among other things) sports books, but the sport in question was swimming--the only sport I've ever actually participated in.  All in all, I was pretty sold on this Crutcher guy.

Terrible cover, though.  I never would have picked it up on my own.

Later that year, I picked up his then-new book, Deadline, at the library.  My Goodreads review stated

I bought the book for my classroom and started talking it up.  I thought this guy was really hitting his stride.

Much better cover.

Last fall (exactly a year ago this week, actually), I was at the NCTE conference in Minnesota, and Crutcher was on one of the panels I went to listen to.  Imagine my surprise when this old guy with white, thinning hair and beard and a decided limp got up to talk.  I've read so many books about teenagers in which the slang sounds like a middle aged person attempting to be groovy, but his books nail it.

As he talked, I found out that he has a background in youth and family counseling.  He's worked with kids for years, and the kids he's worked with have not had easy lives.  Filtering their language is the least of their concerns.  Crutcher talked about his most recent book, Period Eight, in which a teenaged girl is confronting her cheating boyfriend.  She says something along the lines of "Did you put your dick in her?"  He said that as he was writing it, he knew he was going to once again have a banned book, but that in this case, with no adults present, he knew his character would not be mealy-mouthed.  

After the conference, I did a bit of internet stalking of some of the authors I'd been impressed by.  Many were available to follow on Twitter.  Crutcher, apparently, accepted Facebook friend requests from fans as well.  So I friended him.  It turns out my timing was impeccable, because his voice through the entire election debacle has been spot on, full of unfettered anger of a type I rarely allow myself.  Also, he's damn funny.  (Not putting any screenshot here, because that seems like a creepy thing to do.  Send him a friend request if you're curious!)

When I had the chance to stock my classroom library through the Booklove Foundation grant, I ordered a bunch of Crutcher books.  Recently I read Stotan!  It's one of his earlier books, set in 1984, and is the first book I've read of his that felt even the slightest bit dated.  Still, the complexity of the plot (swimming, small town politics, racism, objectification of women, child abuse, terminal illness, flawed heroes, and, of course, growing up) and the humor of the interactions slowly pulled me in, and by the end of the book I was completely invested.

From there I went to The Sledding Hill.  I hadn't read the back of the book, so I was a bit startled when the narrator dies in the first chapter, but I loved the courage with which Billy dealt with all the tragedy life tossed his way.  This book is the only Crutcher book without any swearing (though a student calls a sadistic teacher something that rhymes with his dad's job driving an 18 wheeler around the state...), which was a deliberate decision, as one major subplot involves censorship of an imaginary book written by a foul-mouthed author named...Chris Crutcher.  It is fascinating to watch one of our most-banned authors work through the damage censorship has, the value of books that reflect real life, but also the often good intentions of those who try to act as gatekeepers.

Then I read King of the Mild Frontier: An Ill-Advised Autobiography, and was stunned to find out how much true life experience infuses his work.  There is hilarity, poignancy, and a certain mildly bitter wisdom that make the book worthwhile in and of itself, but what really struck me was how many of the seemingly outlandish bits in his book were lifted directly from reality.  The kid who is crushed by a stack of sheetrock.  The teacher who forces students to stand with arms outstretched.

Stotan week.

The seatbelt an ex-soldier buddy installs in the toilet in his flophouse apartment.

Chris Crutcher is younger than my parents and older than my sisters, which I guess makes him a Baby Boomer.  He's a product of Northern Idaho/Eastern Washington small towns.  He has a quick temper balanced by self-deprecating wit.  He sticks close to the same themes, but he finds new ways to explore them in each book.  We readers claim that fiction builds empathy, and I'm pretty sure his books have more power to change hearts and minds than anything beyond lived experience.


  1. Have to confess that I hadn't heard of Chris Cutcher. Sounds like I need to pick his books up -- thanks for introducing me to a new author!

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

  2. Your reviews make me want to go get them now! I'll keep them in mind. I try to read a few YA or younger person's books each year. One I discovered this year is the Dark Ferret Society--an indie book that I absolutely loved (well, ok, I didn't love the cover). Here's my review if you are interested


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