Warning – some spoilers follow.
Billed as a coming-of-age story with a mystery component, Little Gods is a story of a boy who loses his closest friend and how, as an adult, he becomes determined to avenge that loss.
Travis Mather comes of age in a turbulent time in America’s history. While at boarding school, he and his fellow students watch unbelieving as President Kennedy is shot and try to ignore the tensions in Vietnam which will change so many lives, ignore what it might mean to them and their families.
Even more powerful than that for Travis is the night his best friend, the engaging, funny, loved-by-all Cody, goes missing. On that fateful night, another student tells a tale almost as unbelievable as the assassination of a president, leaving all to believe that either Cody was murdered or that the boy was telling tall tales.
Either way, Cody does not come back, and as an adult a surprise phone call gives Travis the opportunity to return to the school, find out what happened, and avenge his long-dead friend. The life Travis had led is by no means a great one, in a shambles when he receives the phone call that gives his life a purpose. Travis has never really gotten over the disappearance of Cody and is determined to uncover the truth.
The story is divided basically into two parts: Travis as a boy dealing with Cody’s disappearance and the aftermath, then 23 years later when Travis is an adult and is asked to return to the school for his expert assistance in authenticating the remains of the colonial village's hero, Captain Nathan Abercrombie. In this lies the opening for Travis to find out what happened to Cody.
Except, of course, he already knows, as Travis has accepted the story told by the other school boy the night of Cody’s disappearance and believes Cody was murdered. He even thinks he knows by whom, and he sets off to unravel the secrets of the past in a perverted attempt at justice.
What starts out as a well-written account of boarding school reminiscent of Tom Brown’s Schooldays or books of similar ilk soon deteriorates into a confused mess made unbelievable by events that don’t make sense.
Also, the character development of Travis is unnerving, going from an uninteresting child trying to come out from under the shadow left by Cody while simultaneously mourning him to a downright unlikable adult.
More than a coming-of-age story, this is a tale of bitter revenge as Travis goes to drastic measures to avenge his friend’s death. We are led to believe he wrestles with his conscience as he decides whether or not to reveal things about the past that will make things very uncomfortable for those that who love Cody. Yet Travis’s actions when dealing with the truth are deplorable, inconsistent with someone who has a conscience and cares about finding the truth.
Though in parts well-written, I found there to be a few too many problems, such as the reader’s difficulty in accepting the treasure map exercise toward the end of the book as well as the climactic twist to do with the personal lives of some of the characters. Not to mention the fact that, as he is an architect, why on earth would Travis be invited back to his old school for his expertise when the task at hand is an exhumation?
Throughout the story also, and here is a spoiler, are the terms ‘homosexual’ and ‘pedophile’ being used interchangeably, with no attempt to separately define the two.
This book has a lot of promise. The school features some colorful characters and starts off well, where an apt nickname or a simple sentence from each boy gives clues to what kind of boy each is and what kind of man he might become, or where he stands within the ranks of the schoolboys.
Also well done is the setting of the scene. The 1960s do come alive, and each child is being pulled in a direction based on their reactions not only to the disappearance of a school friend but the issues and politics of the time.
Travis and others rally to try and fill the gap left by Cody on the swim team and in other sports - Cody was that perfect all-rounder who did everything well and left others in his wake. It is touching how the boys come together to try and succeed in Cody’s honor.
Yet the overall story is flawed. The idea of seeking justice for a long-lost friend when your own life is a shambles is a good one and could lead to a heartrending story. Here, there is too much that takes away from that premise. The book lacks the suspense required of it and does not do nearly enough to build empathy for the characters.
If you love a coming-of-age story, you may want to give it a try; perhaps you will be more forgiving. I simply could not gain the enjoyment from it I anticipated from the tone of the opening pages.
David L Hoof’s first novel, Sight Unseen, was published in 1990. Other works include Blind Man’s Bluff and The Last Prisoner. Writing as Grace Alder, he penned The Suicide Diary. He has taught all aspects of creative writing, has two daughters and lives with his wife in Washington, D.C. For more information, visit