There are many things we look to writers for—entertainment to education, impossible imaginings to realistic character portrayals, exotic settings to empathetic circumstances, escape to comfort. Whether it be hero or villain, victim or passerby, elite or quotidian, another thing some readers look for is the experience of living inside someone else’s head, and some of the most difficult heads to portray may be children’s. Requiring the perfect balance of naivete and cleverness, only truly skilled writers capture the feel in believable fashion. Long Island suburbia circa 1960 the setting, Jeffrey Ford’s The Shadow Year (2008) presents a year in the life of a boy on the cusp of adolescence that finds an author wonderfully capable of slipping inside the mind of a child.
Feeling strongly autobiographical, The Shadow Year is a nostalgic novel. World history set aside in favor of personal details, however, the unnamed boy who leads a the story offers no views to the Vietnam or Cold Wars happening in the larger world, but can tell you the idiosyncrasies of the local ice cream man, how to properly t.p. a house on Halloween night, what issues to consult your sister on, who the most endearing pulp heroes are, what secret trails lead through the patch of woods behind the house to the school, who the worst bullies are, what triggers his mother’s anger, and a host of other information vital to the average 12-13 year old boy. Snips and snails and puppy dog’s tails, Ford perfectly captures the delights of growing up in America’s Golden Age. (More on the non-delights, later.)
The boy’s shadow year starts with a small scare, but moves to bigger scares. A peeping tom is seen in his neighborhood, and people start locking their doors at night. A short time later, one of his schoolmates disappears, and the body can’t be found. And a mysterious man dressed in a white suit and driving a large white car begins appearing on the streets at night, and for no apparent reason, slowing down when he sees the unnamed boy. The shadows seeming to come alive, the boy decides to take matters into his own, trembling hands. Enlisting the help of his sister, brother, and sometimes their dog, he begins gathering information on his neighbors, trying to find a link between all the signs. In the dark streets of suburban America, he finds what he’s looking for.
Before the reader dismisses The Shadow Year as another Something Wicked This Way Comes, they should be aware that Ford’s novel is far grittier than Bradbury’s. Leave It to Beaver indeed left behind, the boy’s mother is an alcoholic, his father works three jobs to make ends meet, his sister has some developmental issues, schoolwork does not come naturally, and occasionally he is made the target of other students’ fists and feet. Not everything is roses and rainbows. Moreover, where Bradbury’s novel seems themed around the omnipresence of evil and the temptation toward it, Ford’s story is more personal—a coming of age, or at least a transition into a new phase of maturing—as much as evil swirls around him.
And it’s the year’s aging where Ford hits his stride. As mentioned above, children perceive things differently, which can be difficult to present in fiction. Knowing which mountain is a molehill, and vice versa, is key, and in The Shadow Year, Ford’s ability to portray how the boy copes with his family’s domestic issues (often better than his own parents), is superb. Another item is how certain things, things most adults dismiss out of hand, fester and grow in the boy’s mind. The dark, fantastical elements of the novel the vehicle through which much of this is portrayed, one is never sure where the line between reality and the impossible is, only that it steadily pushes the boy onward. Knowing the imagination of children, who can argue the reality, not to mention appreciate Ford’s presentation of it?
While I feel the novella that spawned the novel remains the more artistic, ambiguously realistic rendering, the novel is still outstanding. (The novella, called “Botch Town,” is really a window into the life of the boy, whereas the novel has a stronger, more developed plot line with intro, body, climax, and closure.) Both, however, are gorgeous stories that do a superb job presenting the worldview of thirteen-year old growing up in suburban Long Island during America’s Golden Age. Politics fittingly out of view, the boy gets in schoolyard fights, sees ghosts in the shadows, deals with domestic problems, goes trick-or-treating, and ultimately matures into the next phase of his life. Ford accomplishing the magic of presenting the world through the eyes of youth, the novel’s charm sits aside other such works such as: Harlan Ellison’s “Jeffty is Five,” James Patrick Kelly’s “10^16 1,” Jack Cady’s “The Night We Buried Road Dog,” and Stephen King’s “Stand by Me.”