Title: Pushing Back
Author: Jim Hartsell
Genre: Southern fiction / Coming-of-age fiction / Appalachian fiction
Pushing Back by Jim Hartsell is a coming-of-age story about a 16-year-old boy named Boone who lives in Tennessee. Growing up with an abusive alcoholic father and a mother who seems to have given up after the death of Boone’s older brother, Boone finds himself on his own for the first time and navigating his way as he figures out his life. With only an elderly neighbor, Gamaliel, and a girl from school, Nancy, by his side, Boone begins to learn what it means to make the right choices and not be like his father.
Coming-of-age fiction is usually character-driven, and this is the case for Pushing Back, the first novel in a series. Told in first-person point of view, we get inside Boone’s head right away and remain there for the duration of his story. The first-person point of view is a wise choice for this type of narrative and lends well to giving the protagonist a strong voice and allowing the reader to get to know him. Boone is a conflicted young man. He battles his internal anger after being left behind to finish raising himself, worrying that he might turn out like his father if he doesn’t get a better handle on his emotions. At 16, his lack of life experience also plays a role in his awkwardness around a girl and how to act around his elderly neighbor, Gamaliel, whose care Boone is suddenly partly responsible for.
Boone is challenged several times throughout the novel with making tough decisions, and the reader cheers when he gets it right and groans when he gets it wrong. The fact that Hartsell created a character who the reader identifies with and feels for is a triumph.
The author does a compelling job of setting the scene. We can imagine the inside of Boone’s house and the wreck left after his parents fought, the barn where his father did something horrible, the woods behind their back yard where Boone disappears time and again into his haven, a “pool.” While the setting’s place is clearly defined, the setting’s time is confusing. There is no mention of cell phones, tablets, or computers in the homes. Boone mentions the family recently got caller ID on their landline and that his school has computers. This information seems to set the story in the early to mid-1990s. However, about two-thirds into the story, Boone learns that Gamaliel was born in 1922, and Boone remarks that the old man is nearly 90. We find out the year at the end: 2013, putting Gamaliel over 90. The year doesn’t feel like 2013. While it’s possible the folks living in their town may not have the latest technology, it’s surprising that a young man doesn’t mention cell phones or that none of the other kids at school have one.
At times, the narrative is slow, with not much action. Because this is a character-driven story, however, the theme is literary and focused on a self-versus-self conflict. Overall, the story flows well and keeps the reader engaged because the reader is invested in Boone.
Pushing Back sets the stage for the rest of the Boone Series by introducing us to a young man who valiantly struggles to finish raising himself after a challenging upbringing. Boone’s story is a timeless coming-of-age narrative that presents a strong, engaging protagonist in a character-driven book. Readers who enjoy getting inside a character’s head will enjoy Boone’s journey from boy to man.
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