Carla Wayland has never been the most popular girl in school. Her mother is the local librarian in their small Southern town, and her liberal beliefs have always clashed with those of the primarily conservative townspeople. Carla was brought up to be open-minded, but she has grown tired of her mother's activism. She just wants a "normal" life, and part of that dream would include Andy Harris, one of the handsomest boys in school. When Andy finally takes notice of Carla and asks her out, she can't say no and even starts going along with some things that deep down she doesn't feel is right.
Stephan Jones and Frank Montgomery, a young gay couple have just moved into the community, and because of the teachings of his ultra-conservative Christian background, Andy takes it upon himself to start a hate campaign against these two men. He harasses them with prank phone calls, sends hate-filled letters, and even bullies Stephan face-to-face. Carla knows about some of the things Andy and his group of friends are doing, but wanting to fit in and not lose her boyfriend, she does little to try to stop it. Eventually, she believes that Andy's animosity toward Frank and Stephan has simmered down, but when their group of friends finds the men walking along a deserted road late at night after prom, Andy decides that it's time for more extreme measures. Carla must choose once and for all whose side she is on, but it may be too late.
The Drowning of Stephan Jones is yet another thought-provoking book from Bette Greene. It focuses on the extreme bullying and eventual murder of a gay young man by a group of homophobic, supposedly Christian teens. Considering that this book was first published in 1991 when the environment for gays was still pretty hostile, I think it was not only a groundbreaking story, but also a very brave move on the part of the author. Not too surprisingly, it became one of the top 100 banned/challenged books of the 1990's. I can easily predict that many Christians would be off-put, if not outright offended, by the fact that the main perpetrators of the violence in the story are professing Christians. However, not all of of us are bothered by the book. I myself am a Christian, and I don't think that the author's intent was to bash Christianity, so much as it was to shed light on the problem of how certain Christian beliefs (or just ultra-conservatism in general) can lead to tragic consequences. She also explores the idea of responsibility and when it is our duty as citizens to speak up for what's right, as well as the very simple concept of treating every person equally, as a human being, no matter if they're different from us. Lastly, Ms. Greene touches on the importance of educating ourselves and our children, so tragedies like this don't happen in our own communities.
The primary character in this story is Carla, a high-school junior who isn't exactly the most popular girl in school. Her mother is the librarian of their small Southern town and pretty much the only liberal in a sea of conservatives. Carla's mom has always encouraged her to be open-minded, and Carla has learned a lot from books, which is where the idea of education as a way to prevent and combat prejudice and intolerance comes into play. Because of the way her mother raised her, Carla hates to see anyone being picked on, but at the same time, she has grown tired of being "different" because of the way that her mom always seems to be drawing negative attention to them with her activism. There is a part of me that could understand Carla's need to distance herself from her mother's "causes," but I'm not sure it would have been quite as easy for me to identify with the conservative Harris family as it seemed to be for her. She was attracted to their son, Andy, and thrilled when he finally asked her out. I was very conflicted about her choice to go out with Andy, and more importantly, to then stay with him even after she found out about his bullying behavior toward the young gay couple in the next town. Part of me couldn't understand why she would even like a boy like that much less want to be his girlfriend, but I started thinking back to my own youth and some of the stupid things I did. Then it started to make sense. First of all bad boys often have an indescribable allure, especially for young girls, so in this respect, Carla was probably thinking more with her hormones than her head. Then there was the difficult to combat peer pressure, which made her feel like she had to go along with the crowd in order to be liked and fit in. Lastly, Carla seemed like a fairly shy girl. Deep down, she didn't really agree with Andy's position, but found it very hard to speak up, because Andy and the others pretty much overwhelmed her and steamrolled her whenever she tried. I may not have always agreed with Carla's choices, but when the chips were down and her friends actually attacked Stephan, she finally did do the right thing even though it ultimately wasn't enough to save him and also cost her dearly.
The other main characters in this story are the victims and the perpetrators. Stephan and his partner Frank moved to Arkansas from Boston for a change of pace, and run a little antiques shop in a touristy type town. They love the area and just want to live peacefully, but their plans are disrupted by a bunch of bullies who hate them merely for loving one another. Stephan is a pretty reserved young man, while Frank is more outspoken, but other then them being a gay couple there is nothing that sets them apart from the crowd. Their attackers are led by Andy, another young man who seems to appoint himself as judge, jury and executioner to this couple. It was easy to see where Andy learned how to hate and bully. He was a teen who was himself bullied by his own father, although it certainly didn't make his actions right on any level. It is difficult to imagine or understand how anyone can twist the Bible to justify the kind of hatred and violence that Andy commits, but I know it does happen. We want to believe that we live in a more civilized society nowadays, but there are those among the population who still behave like animals. Andy and his friends just happened to be some of those people.
As a parent I think that this book contains a strong message for teens, not only about the importance of being tolerant of those who are different, but also about standing up for what's right by speaking out when you know someone is being bullied. Even though the entire responsibility for Stephan's death lies squarely on the perpetrators, it is possible that if Carla had told someone about what Andy was doing sooner, it might not have escalated as far as it did. As to content that might concern parents, the book does have a fair bit of strong language, including several uses of the "f-word" and a lot of hate speech. I didn't find it to be gratuitous though, as it fit the characters and situations. I also don't think the story would have had quite the same impact without these "bad" words. There is no sexual content per se, but Carla mentions Andy pressuring her for sex. She thought long and hard about her answer before it even came up between them, and her response was a very mature one which sends another positive message to teens, especially girls. Any teen who is being bullied or fears bullying might be upset by the scenes in which Stephan is bullied. The final scene right before his death is particularly intense, as three good size guys, as well as two girls, are beating up on, molesting, and otherwise menacing a much smaller, innocent man who is begging for his life. In spite of this, I still believe that most older teens could handle the mature subject matter. In my opinion, it is no worse than some PG-13 movies.
Overall, The Drowning of Stephan Jones is a book that leaves the reader with a lot of food for thought. There was a twist to the ending that some may find fitting, but which may not be satisfying to others. I'm kind of undecided myself, because I can see it both ways. After reading several of Bette Greene's books, I've come to realize that she has a tendency to leave her endings somewhat open, and I will say that it was realistic for the time period in which it was written. While we now have hate crimes laws which would help prevent endings like this in real life today, there were no such laws at the time this story was written. Not only the ending, but the entire story was pretty realistic. As I was reading it, I was eerily reminded of the real-life murder of Matthew Shepard which had some really bizarre similarities. Since this book was published seven years before Matt's murder, there couldn't possibly be a correlation, but it does make one wonder how many other gay individuals have experienced this kind of abuse that we never even hear about. All in all, I thought that The Drowning of Stephan Jones was a very good book that I would recommend to anyone, mature teens and up, who want to read more about LGBT motivated hate crimes or who might want to challenge themselves to see those in the LGBT community from a different point of view.
The Hope Chest Reviews on Facebook