Kristin Levine and I have worked together since her debut, The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had. I still remember that “I must have it!” feeling as I read her debut on submission. It was everything I love in a book—not only was it wonderfully written with humor and a voice that leaped off the page, but the characters were palpably real to me; they were the kind of characters that stay with you. And seven years later, I still reach to Dit and Emma for comfort or laughs. It was like that with Kristin’s second novel, The Lions of Little Rock, as well. Marlee and Liz were both girls I would have liked to have been friends with when I was that age—girls who had an interesting perspective on the world around them, girls I would have admired.
When Kristin introduced me to Tommy, the main character in The Paper Cowboy, she did so with trepidation. She said, “He might not be as likeable as my characters have been in the past; he’s a bit of a bully.” Well, I couldn’t imagine Kristin was capable of writing a character I didn’t like—bully or not, so I said send him on. I couldn’t wait to meet him.
Reading The Paper Cowboy for the first time was a wonderful and emotionally fraught experience. Just as I suspected, Kristin Levine was incapable of writing a character I didn’t like. In fact, I loved Tommy, immediately. I also worried over him, cried with him and even found myself darn right upset with him at times. But I also rooted for him, wanted to give him hugs and tell him it would be okay. Tommy wasn’t unlikeable. He was this charming, loveable, and yes mischievous boy, who sometimes made mistakes. But he also had a big heart and was capable of great kindness and generosity. He was nuanced and—as Kristin’s characters had always felt to me—incredibly real. Both his vulnerability and strength ran deep and his determination to turn it all around for not only himself, but also his family and his community was inspiring. Yet, he was still a character I knew other kids would see themselves in and through Tommy’s struggles and triumphs, they would know they could make an important difference for themselves or someone else.
More so in The Paper Cowboy than in her previous novels, Kristin doesn’t shy away from the tough stuff. Tommy’s mom is struggling with mental illness, his sister has been badly burned and hospitalized and Tommy feels tremendous guilt because of it, and there is an unnerving fear of communism running rampant throughout this Cold War era neighborhood. But the hope that also runs throughout the narrative is undeniable and wholly sustaining, making this a very rewarding read—as now three starred reviews give testament to.
If you’re like me as you read (and I hope you do!), you’ll simultaneously want to protect Tommy and set him straight. Ultimately, you’ll understand he has to find his own way through the tough stuff and when he does, he’ll make you immensely proud. He may even be one of those characters who restore your faith in the human spirit and people’s ability to change for the better. At least that’s what he did for me.
And that’s the magic of Kristin Levine. She breaks your heart and then helps you put it back together piece-by-piece and you’ll thank her for every bit of it. I’m very thankful for Tommy; he will be with me for a lifetime. Gosh, I can’t wait to see who Kristin will dream up next.