Monday, July 27, 2015

CONVICTION by Kelly Loy Gilbert

Richie’s Picks: CONVICTION by Kelly Loy Gilbert, Hyperion, May 2015, 352p., ISBN: 978-1-4231-9738-6

“Alex is a senior and he plays second base for La Abra, so I’ve played against him all my life. La Abra churns out good players, Latino kids who make you wonder if they’re lying about how old they are, but Alex is just mediocre and I wouldn’t think much of him if it wasn’t for this: despite his .249 average, he’s not an easy guy to strike out, and I’ve never been able to figure out why.

I’ve talked to him exactly once, when I was twelve and we were both at an umping clinic for Little League, and they had breakfast for us there and he ate his cereal with juice. I sad it was gross, and he shrugged and said maybe I was jealous. But he didn’t say it like he was defensive or like he was joking around and wanted to be friends; he said it like what I’d said just didn’t affect him at all. To be nice, I said, ‘I’m Braden,’ and he said, ‘I know who you are.’ Then he said, ‘You’re a good pitcher,’ only he said it matter-of-factly, not as a compliment, and I didn’t know what to make of that.

I read the stats with his name four times over until the words start to lose their meanings. Then I shut the computer, fast.

It’s twelve more weeks until we play La Abra. I hope that’s enough time to figure out how I’m supposed to get up on a mound and face the nephew of the cop my dad’s accused of killing.”

CONVICTION is a powerful and sometimes horrific teen tale. Braden Raynor is the star pitcher at a high school in California’s Central Valley. Last year, as a junior, he threw a perfect game as his school won the state championship. If Braden can stay healthy and focused, he has the talent to go pro after high school or college.

Given Braden’s father, that’s a big if.

Braden’s birth resulted from his father’s one-night stand with a barely-legal young woman. His father is now a well-known religious radio broadcaster. But at the time of his parents’ liaison, his father was “a ruined ex-minor leaguer who drank too much and had a custodian job at the radio station.” He was already single-parenting one son, Trey, who couldn’t stand his father for reasons that we will come to understand.

When Braden was four months old, his mother took him to his father’s door. She told the unknowing father that Braden was his, left the baby there, and moved to L.A., hoping to become a dancer.

Baby Braden’s arrival in the household was responsible for a temporary truce between half-brother Trey--twelve years older than Braden--and their volatile father. Now, eighteen years later, Trey has been long estranged from their father and long gone from California. But with their father incarcerated and awaiting trial on charges of deliberately driving over a police officer during a traffic stop, Braden is parentless. To protect Braden from being consigned to a group home, Trey has temporarily returned to stay with Braden in the house from which he long ago escaped.

There’s suspense in the story that kept me turning the pages: Braden was with his father on that evening when the fatal incident occurred, and anxiously waited to hear the young man’s perspective on what really happened. Day by day, Braden works his way through the team’s baseball season and toward the day that he will have to testify at his father’s trial.

Braden’s version of Christianity, influenced by his father and by their local religious community, is a big factor in the story. On one hand, these communities provide admirable support for Braden during this nightmare of a senior year. On the other hand, many of the beliefs and prejudices of Braden, his father, some of his baseball teammates, and his religious community remind me why there is so much discord in America over social and political issues.

The excitement and vivid details of Braden’s pitching make CONVICTION a first-rate sports story. The darkness of the parent-child relationships and the theme of a young person trying to find balance between family ties and his own way in life make it a powerful contemporary YA read. I’m sure glad I read it.

Richie Partington, MLIS

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