Another book that’s been on my TBR for years. Always good to clear out some of that backlog, right? We’re talking YEARS, like probably since around 2005. You may be more familiar with the author’s more well-known work, Summer of My German Soldier; that one tends to make a lot of high school reading lists, but I didn’t read it until my early 20’s. I learned of The Drowning of Stephan Jones by Bette Greene (Laurel Leaf, 1991) from a friend, and her review had me rushing to put it on my list. Now, all these years later, it’s a dated but unfortunately still relevant and poignant read.
Content warnings abound. This book is about hatred and homophobia that runs deep enough to kill, and the pages are filled with an enormous amount of slurs and prejudice, much of it coming from people purporting to be Christian, including a pastor, including during sermons (it does happen; my husband witnessed it while attending a church in Louisiana in 2005. He didn’t return). There are multiple instances of violence, including a murder by- as the title suggests- drowning, and the book ends as so many of these cases do, without a clear sense of justice. Consider what you’re ready to handle at the time before selecting this book; it’s a painful read.
Carla Wayland is suuuuuuuuuper in love with Andy Harris. He’s gorgeous and popular, he’s smart, he works in his dad’s hardware store… It seems almost impossible that he could be into her, too, but there he is, asking her out. There’s just one little problem: an incident Carla witnessed at the hardware store, involving the way Mr. Harris, Andy’s father, treated two gay men. At first, Carla’s sure that Andy is on her side; those two men weren’t hurting anyone, but Andy’s firmly in his father’s camp, repeating all the Bible verses about homosexuality (and conveniently ignoring the entire rest of the book, of course). Irritated by her librarian mother’s politcal and social activism, Carla’s willing to giggle and overlook Andy’s virulent homophobia, wishing she could just fit in for once, even if that nagging feeling of doubt that Andy’s not right keeps squirming away in her conscience.
When Prom night arrives, what Carla expects to be the most magical night of her life turns into the stuff of nightmares when Andy’s torment of Stephan Jones and his partner Frank Montgomery goes too far. There’s no happy ending for anyone in this book, but neither is there true justice, and in that aspect, The Drowning of Stephan Jones mirrors real life a little too well.
First off, this was first published in 1991, so it’s more than a little dated by YA standards. I remember reading a lot of books written in this style when I was growing up, and honestly, I’m impressed that this book even made it to print in ’91. I was 11 then, and when LGBT issues were brought up in any kind of media, it was either about AIDS (the movie of And the Band Played On wouldn’t be made for another two years, but Magic Johnson announced he was HIV-positive that year) or was more for laughs- remember all the laughs Friends went for when Ross’s wife Carol left him for another woman? When Ellen came out of the closet by accidentally announcing that she was gay over an airport loudspeaker? So kudos to Ms. Greene and other authors who were out there pushing these boundaries and opening the doors and the minds of YA readers at the time; I’m grateful that this book and others like it (I did read Annie On My Mind in high school!) existed. Just know that if you read it now, the dialogue, in particular, shows the book’s age.
The story is told not just from Carla’s perspective, but from Frank’s, and Stephen’s, and even Carla’s mother gets in on the action. All these viewpoints help round out the story; Carla’s librarian mother, who, because of her past, has learned to use her voice and stand up for what she believes in, is a particularly likable character. Carla, however, is maybe a bit on the immature side and frustrating to read- while this could be because I identified better with her mother than with her due to my age, I felt it was more due to Carla’s constant need to fit in, to the detriment of her integrity (needing to fit in was never something I was concerned about when I was younger. I didn’t fit in with the popular crowd, and I didn’t care, because a lot of them were terrible, mean people). She does learn, but it’s at a high cost to many people, and while this story goes beyond being a simple cautionary tale, it doesn’t make Carla’s eye-rolling rejection of her mother’s humanitarian ideals any less irksome.
What bothered me about this book was the ending. Obviously, there are no spoilers when I say that in The Drowning of Stephan Jones, Stephan Jones drowns, and if you’ve read what I’ve already written, you realize his drowning is no accident. There’s a scene at the end where I feared Frank, Stephan’s partner, was about to enact terrible, bloody revenge, but the revenge he does enact is of a different sort, one that plays upon and ultimately serves to further the town’s overwhelming homophobia. It’s not a scene that I think would clear an editor’s desk these days simply for that reason, and while it may have seemed fitting retribution back when this was first published, it left a sour taste in my mouth as I read it twenty-eight years later. If only books were more fluid and more easily updated…
The Drowning of Stephan Jones is an all-too-real novel of what happens when people listen without questioning what they’re ‘carefully taught,’ as the Rodgers and Hammerstein song goes. It’s a story of what happens when we go along with the crowd without raising our voices for the sake of popularity, for the sake of safety. And it’s the disappointing story of justice unserved, of the culmination of people who have been carefully taught being placed in positions with the power to decide who deserves justice and who doesn’t. Not an easy read, to be sure, but still as applicable today as when it was written…which is bitterly disappointing, to say the very least.
Do you often read backlist like this? I find it especially interesting to examine how styles have changed and social attitudes differ. Most of the time, there’s notable differences, and while the LGBT community has made incredible strides since The Drowning of Stephan Jones was first published, there are far too many people who have yet to catch up. The work continues…
Visit Bette Greene’s website here.