The Last Exit to Normal by Michael Harmon

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

While browsing the stacks at the library, Michael Harmon’s  The Last Exit to Normal definitely caught my attention. I had no idea what the book was about since the back cover was about another of Harmon’s books Skate. The title, however, was enough to make me want to check it out, but it was the story and the characters that kept me reading.

Nothing in Ben Campbell’s life has been normal since his father announced three years ago that he was gay, and his mom leaves, and his dad’s boyfriend Edward moves in. To retaliate, Ben turns rebellious smoking pot, getting drunk, and skipping school. After getting arrested Ben’s Dad and Edward decides to leave the city and move Ben to Rough Butte, Montana, the small rural town where Edward grew up, and in Ben’s mind “the last exit to normal for a family that would never be normal”. Here Ben must deal with more than coming to terms with his father’s sexual orientation. There is Edward’s tough mother, Miss Mae, who refuses to accept Ben’s smart mouth or lazy ways; a next door neighbor, who is a bitter man, beats his son, and locks him in a closet for just talking to Ben; and a psychotic teenage delinquent, who is out to get him. But Rough Butte does have one perk, Kimberly Johan, who Ben falls in love with at first sight. This coming of age book has lots to offer: romance, quirky characters, heroism and candid discussions about homosexuality and child abuse.

While there is no denying that the title of Harmon’s books is alluring, what made his book a great read were his characters and the surprising interactions that occur between them. Ben’s voice is strong and honest. Even after three years of dealing with his father’s alternative lifestyle, Ben is still angry, which comes out in a variety of ways. He has a sarcastic humor that is often snide, contemptuous, even caustic at times, but his honesty is real. Ben’s bluntness about his life is the reason I found him such a likable character. Another character that helped make this book funny despite the deeper issues it dealt with was Miss Mae, Ben’s “dadmom’s” mother.  Miss Mae is as straightforward as they come, and how Miss Mae and Ben interact is almost comical. A typical example of this interaction is when she meets Ben for the first time. After establishing that Ben’s dad is “one of those funny guys” like her son, she asks Ben, “You funny?” Ben replies, “You mean funny like a homosexshul or funny like a comedian?” Miss Mae then points out that Ben’s got a mouth on him and frankly states,”That’s gonna change.” Never dealing with a woman like Miss Mae, Ben’s mouth continues to get him into trouble.  She whacks Ben upside the head with her wooden spoon, chases him with a broom, and banishes him to the woodshed “till he learns some respect”. Ben slowly grows from the petulant teen trying to get even with his dad into a guy, who gets out of his own way and helps save others and in the process begins healing the riff between he and his dad.  By the end of the book he recognizes that his life isn’t too bad and that he might even belong in Rough Butte, Montana.

Many middle school librarian might find the subject matter of homosexuality and child abuse too risqué for their shelves because of the younger grades. However, The Last Exit to Normal definitely suggests that adults should carefully examine how their choices affect the children in their lives. It also advocates that teenagers should question and act when those choices can cause serious harm. I strongly recommend this book.

Rating: 4 Cherries

1 Delicious Comments:

Terry Doherty said...

Thank you for such an indepth, honest review. I'm not a librarian, but a parent and having a little insight into what to expect helps me decide if my child is ready, and if so, anticipate the discussions/questions that will come my way.

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