Beyond the threat of tornado season, there’s an ominous feel to this stark, poignant novel of two boys caught in the backdraft of their parents’ broken marriage in 1988 Leavenworth, Kansas, an area inundated by prisons. Their father, a policeman, sees his boys
(one 10 years old, the other nearly 12) on weekends, his routine barely broken by their visits. In contrast, their mother, Agatha, is trapped in a desperate cycle of poverty brought on by divorce.
She works long, erratic hours at a golf shop, often too exhausted to accompany her restless boys’ need to escape the confines of their small apartment.
The boys do what others in their straits do: they appear to follow the rules, routinely sneaking out for diversion on oppressively hot, lonely summer days.
The empty swimming pool at the complex calls them, the younger dutifully following his older brother. Even when his older sibling is purposefully cruel, the younger easily forgives, tethered by loyalty and need.
Meanwhile, their parents drift away, both lives unmoored since the split.
Smith knows this territory intimately, set in a neighborhood similar to that of his own childhood, even escaped prisoners a familiar backdrop to daily dramas. An escaped prisoner is at large in Hurt People, identified in local newspapers as “the Stranger”, as foreign to the boys’ sense of reality as the horror films they watch on weekends with their father. When an older boy appears at the gated pool their mother has finally given permission to use, the boys are drawn to his easy banter, the stranger, Chris, displaying his diving prowess and promising to teach the older boy such tricks.
Chris is a secret they keep, a caveat demanded by their new confidant and the price of friendship, made more tempting by an explanation of the true meaning of the Chinese characters of his tattoo. Though the older boy is attracted to the promise of expanding their opportunities for things to do, the younger is prone to cautiousness--and fear that the newcomer will create a wedge between the brothers, the careful construction of the sibling relationship, the dependence that has defined a bifurcated familial existence. It is an awkward phase for boys on the precipice of adolescence, conscious of each parent’s attempts to shield them from life yet curious about the world outside the narrow parameters of their experiences. It has been enough before, playing imaginary games with childhood toys, the yearning for something new startling and exciting: “You follow me around… doing what I do, wanting the things I want, but you’re too afraid to go get them.”
The essential theme of Hurt People is familiar in contemporary times: a married couple who see dreams ground down by daily life, their discontent eroding the union, then the family, boys left to navigate this dystopian landscape of love gone wrong, the stale scent of poverty that sickens the soul and leaves it vulnerable: “Hurt people hurt people.” But desperation becomes tragedy as emptiness breeds opportunity, a struggling, broken family unit suffering a blow beyond even their diminished expectations.
Smith captures the minutiae of a family adapting to its fragmentation, a mother terrified by the future, blinded by need, boys doing what they do, living in the moment, creating their own reality, keeping their own secrets: “When a secret is shared, people get hurt.” When love is stretched thin by a paucity of resources, violence and retribution are sometimes tempered by fate. A tornado is an apt metaphor for what happens in this compelling tale, chaos breeding catastrophe, the world turned upside-down, randomly rearranged, the silence after the storm broken only by a mother’s tears, a father’s regret, and the unbearable bonds of brotherhood.