I got asked a lot about why I was teaching Lullabies for Little Criminals because it is such a dreary book. Why teach something that is so raw, so traumatic? Why can’t I find something more uplifting? And hey, I’m not saying I’ll never teach a fun or funny book. But I like YA that is raw, because that’s real. Growing up is hard. This is an idea we might pay lip-service to as adults, but it’s a truth the shape of which we tend to forget as we get older. I like to think this is because we’re embroiled in our own little dramas, and we tend to think that the age we’re at now has it the toughest. Plus, we look back at our younger selves, and our inexperience, and hopefully we can laugh at it—but sometimes that laughter gets projected onto other young people. It’s easy, sometimes, to forget how hard they have it.
Conviction is another real, gritty YA book along the lines of Asking For It. Louise O’Neill’s story about a young girl in a small town who is raped and then victim-blamed asks its readers to consider hard truths about the way we socialize boys and girls to think about women. Similarly, Kelly Loy Gilbert presents a powerful story about the way toxic masculinity maneuvers men and boys into corners. I took this off the library shelf at a whim—I had heard nothing about it, knew nothing about author, didn’t know what to expect from the book in terms of tone or content. I’m very happy I took that chance.
My YA reads tend to be biased towards books with female protagonists (which are targeted, at least in terms of marketing, towards young women). Partly this is selection bias from the sources I use to get my YA recommendations. It’s also somewhat intentional, because of course I didn’t grow up as a young woman in any time, so I read YA as a way to better relate to what young girls I might know are dealing with as they grow up. Nevertheless, I like a little balance, and Conviction seemed like it would do the trick. Its narrator is a sixteen-year-old boy in Ornette, Alabama. His father, noted host of a local Christian radio show, is arrested on murder charges. And Braden’s testimony might be the one thing that could spare or condemn his father. It’s a great setup, and Gilbert delivers.
Braden’s characterization is, as with most books with first-person narrators, the linchpin. Most of this story is about his relationship with his father, Martin, who is absent in the parts set in the present day, but a force to be reckoned with nonetheless. We also learn about Martin from the numerous flashbacks that Gilbert weaves into the main plot, gradually leading up to Braden’s turn on the witness stand and the reveal of what “really” happened on that foggy day. It’s clear from the start that Braden is devoted to his dad, hence why it’s so interesting to see how he reacts to the new pressures he’s under as a result of his dad’s charges.
Ornette is a small town in the American South, and as such it’s very conservative and very Christian. Braden belongs to a youth group headed up by a teacher at his school, who is also the (former?) best friend of Braden’s brother. The G word gets dropped a lot in this book. As someone who isn’t religious, this is just something I’m not used to—so I found it very fascinating. Gilbert deftly portrays Braden as a young man who believes in God but has many questions and isn’t always sure how to get guidance. Also, her portrayal of his socialized homophobia is important. If we’re going to confront homophobia in our youth, then we need to understand where it comes from—and the way children are raised by their parents and their communities is a huge factor.
Braden’s homophobia, latent throughout the beginning of the story, becomes a bigger deal later in the book. I figured out the twist long before it happened, but I don’t consider that disappointing—rather, it’s just good foreshadowing on Gilbert’s part. And the way she portrays Braden struggling with how to reconcile this news with what he has been taught all his life is powerful and feels real (I say “feels” because I haven’t lived that experience, so I can’t actually speak to that). This would hopefully be a useful story for boys (or girls) who likewise are dealing with that conflict between the values they have received from their parents and their own experiences. Gilbert’s portrayal is sympathetic to Braden without making excuses. The characters here are all people, warts and all, some of them Christian and some not, some of them sympathetic and some not. There are few stereotypes here—just a lot of uncomfortable reminders that many people really are this intolerant and how harmful this can be.
When you get right down to it, of course, Conviction is about how Braden’s dad is an absolutely terrible parent. He is self-centred, manipulative, duplicitous, bigoted, immature, and abusive. He professes a love for his sons, but he treats them more like scions. Gilbert’s approach to showing all of this is masterful. On one level, Martin’s pushing of baseball onto Braden seems just like a slightly-obsessed, passionate father trying to make sure his son does well in athletics. Combined with the other flashbacks, however, this takes on a more sinister aspect. Martin has bought into a very specific and narrow vision of masculinity and determines to impress this on his sons. Trey refuses to conform and fights back by leaving. Braden begins to fall for it. It’s not Braden’s fault, but this is how they get you—get them young and get them hooked!
Just as it was painful to read Asking for It because of how intense some of its scenes are, it’s painful in places to read Conviction. I was so sad to see what happens between Braden and Maddie and how his father manages to get between the two of them even while he’s in jail. I was sad to see the drama with Braden and Trey play out the way it does—even if it has a somewhat optimistic resolution, the fact it had to happen that way, the fact that either of them went through any of that with their father … that’s just rough. It’s not something any child should have to experience, yet it is all too common.
The title of this book sticks with me. Obviously, at first, it seems to relate to Martin’s trial, the fact that Braden has the power to sway whether or not Martin is convicted. However, there are deeper connotations. “Conviction” speaks to one’s certainty about one’s beliefs. Braden has incredible conviction for a sixteen-year-old—yet that conviction is tested here, as he wonders what the right and moral things to do are. And as the reader, you have to ask yourself whether you agree with what he does, and what you think about the result.
Conviction undersells itself, if anything. From the description I was hoping for an underwhelming, OK book about a boy who plays baseball and has a dick father. It’s so much better than that; it blew me away. It is a story high on teenage passion. Gilbert’s writing is slick and evocative. Braden’s thoughts and feelings are always front-and-centre, so you get to know and identify with him. When he acts out, especially in the form of making poor decisions on the pitcher’s mound, your heart goes out to him. This is a novel that acknowledges the hard choices teenagers face, reminds us that teenagers don’t have the tools they need to deal with those choices, and indicts the social and cultural hegemony that shames teenagers who do not conform.