Monday, May 23, 2011

Kings of Colorado by David E. Hilton — 288 pgs

Kings of Colorado: A NovelWhen 13 year old William Shepard stabs his stepfather in the side with an ivory handled pocket knife after trying to protect his mother from his brutal abuse, he is quickly sent off to Swope Ranch Boys’ Reformatory in the remote hills of Colorado for a stint of two years. Even though Will’s stepfather ends up surviving, the punishment for the boy is swift and severe. Though the facility is ostensibly a place for juvenile delinquents to do correctional time, the boys who live at the ranch are also responsible to care for and break the wild mustangs that are caught in the hills for eventual sale to other ranches. As William soon discovers, life at the ranch is always precarious and sometimes brutal, not only due to the attitudes of the inmates but also due to the power plays and aggressive behavior of the guards and wardens. Although his new life is harsh, William soon forms a small group of friends, and as they fulfill their sentences day by violent day, the boys become closer than brothers. When one by one the other boys begin to fall prey to horrible incidents, Will’s heart begins to break and he must hold on to himself and his sanity as life around him swirls into a maelstrom of violence, hatred and vengeance. In this debut by David E. Hilton, the terror and senseless atrocities of a boys’ correctional facility is rendered in flawless and stark detail, sharing the tale of Will and his ragtag band of friends.

I had originally thought this book would be suitable for a YA audience; however, when I began to read it, I quickly discovered that this was not the case. Though the story deals with teenage protagonists, this is in no way a story for an immature audience, and as I pressed further and further into the book, I nearly became nauseated by some of the atrocities that befell the boys of the ranch. This book reminded me very much of the movie Stand by Me, with the focus being on boys’ friendships in times of trouble, but unlike Stand by Me, this was much darker and told a story of unending sadness and heartbreak. Though it was an extremely difficult book to stomach, it was also remarkable and had the ability to pull me in to its difficult tale headfirst, and keep me trapped within its story until the very last page.

The conditions at Swope Ranch are violent and primitive, and Will must learn to navigate in a world where he must watch his back not only from the boys, but the guards as well. There is something about the way that Hilton captures the frenzy of the boys in these sections that was not only frightening to read about, but that rang true to me. In a place stacked to the gills with boys who are already known as juvenile offenders, Swope seemed to have the atmosphere of an almost dystopian community, and the conglomeration of boys reminded me of the children that populated the island in Lord of the Flies. There was one particular boy named Silas who simply seemed to be the epitome of evil, and I do not say this lightly. He was not only indifferent to the suffering of others, he was almost hungry and gleeful for it, and some of the things he does in this book were so upsetting that I had to take small frequent breaks while reading, which is something I haven’t had to do for a long while.

In his story, Hilton manages to get the alchemy of boys’ bravado and smack-talking to a level I’ve not seen before. Reading through the chapters, the gravity and impact of the boys’ daily interactions and skirmishes rang very realistically true. Reading the dialogue was like sitting unnoticed among a group of teenage boys discussing their lives and conquests, both real and imagined, and it drew me deeply into the story and heightened my compassion for these wayward boys who were just trying to get along and do their stint. There was a great camaraderie between Will and his band of friends, and just as they could throw out insults and cut each other down, they were also capable of stunning acts of kindness and loyalty.

A certain portion of the book also deals with the breaking of a particularly aggressive and ornery mustang, and in the attempts of the boys to bring her into the fold, I could see various allusions to the breaking of the boys themselves and the persistence with which they fought the impetus to change into people who are unrecognizable versions of themselves. That horse and her actions symbolized so many thing so beautifully, and I thought Hilton did a great job incorporating that particular storyline into the book.

Though there were tender times, there were times that the violence was intensely difficult to read about. The rivalries and confrontations were caustic and sometimes deadly, and the book had the capacity to be stunningly and piercingly violent, disturbing and severe. There were times that my stomach was twisting in knots and I began to get light-headed, which is something that has never happened to me before while reading a book. It was a graphic and brutal display of narrative and at times it left me breathless with rage and sorrow. Anyone considering reading this book needs to know these things before they begin, I think, as coming across some of this unaware could be startling and might turn readers off the book early.

Though there was copious violence here, there was also beauty and a deep exploration of friendship and brotherhood that would touch even the most hardened hearts. It was a story that had me moving from lofty highs to abysmal lows and back, and I think Hilton did a magnificent job creating the type of story and characters that you can’t help but become invested in. This is a book I won’t forget for many reasons, and if you’re the type of reader who can stomach strong violence and pathos, I would recommend Kings of Colorado to you heartily.


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

15 comments:

TheBookGirl said...

Wow, that was a powerful review to read before breakfast :)

I was thinking as I read your first paragraph -- Lord of the Flies -- and then, reading on, I saw that you made that same connection. Lord of the Flies was a book that upset me for a very long time when I read it in school, so I'm not sure I'm the best candidate for this one.
I am intrigued though, by the ranch aspect of it; if I thought I could skim through the violence I might try it, but I get the sense that the group violence is so woven into the story that it would be difficult to do.

Geosi said...

This book is for me. No big deal stomaching all those violence you described. I think you had me wanting to read this. Lovely review.

Sandy Nawrot said...

It is a little disarming to look at that cover and have no idea what's coming. Plus, like you said, I could see where a teenager might pick it up! Could this be considered a Western? I couldn't tell what the time period was. C.B. James is doing that Western challenge the whole month of May.

Suko said...

Zibilee, as I read your review I heard the song Welcome to the Jungle in my head, and then thought of Lord of the Flies, and soon you mentioned that very book. Very sharp review! I'm not sure I could tolerate Silas' evil spirit, though.

Zibilee said...

You know Sandy, this would probably qualify as a Western, given that it mostly takes place on a ranch in Colorado, and there are cowboys in it as well. It's probably not technically a Western, but it fits some of the parameters.

Audra said...

As usual, another informative, thoughtful review. You read books I don't see much of which is so refreshing! I've added this to my TBR even though it's not my typical read -- it might be too much but you've got me a bit curious about it!

Darlene said...

Great review Heather. I'm on the fence though on whether or not this is something I would like. It sounds like an emotionally disturbing novel which I usually gravitate to. Hmmmm, I'm just not sure. It certainly sounds intriguing.

Pam (@iwriteinbooks) said...

Thanks for this incredible review; I love the concept and I'm surprised since I'm not at all turned on by the cover.

Marie said...

wow, sounds like a stunner. i'm going to keep an eye out for it!

kay - Infinite Shelf said...

I had never heard of this book, but your review really caught my interest. I usually don't have too much of a hard time to stomach the violent scenes, though I don't enjoy them. It's interesting though, how a book with young characters doesn't necessarily mean a book "for" young readers.

Erin said...

The analogy between the horse being broken and the boys changing sounds beautiful, but I'm not sure I'd do so well with the violence. It sounds like it works with the book, though.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

This was a well done, but tough review to read. I don't think this one is for me.

Jenners said...

Wow! This sounds like one intense read. I can't even imagine reading something that would make me light-headed like that. I'm not sure I could handle it. Excellent review ... as always.

Jenny said...

Hmm, I'm not sure if I could stomach this book. It does sound intense in a good way though. I MUST read Lord of the Flies though... I haven't read that one!

Beth F said...

This is one that's been on my list for long while. I do intend to read it -- violent, powerful, and disturbing.

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