I still recall fondly the female protagonists of teen “chick lit” and coming-of-age stories I read in high school. On a given day I might feel as tormented by love and teenage awkwardness as Mia Thermopolis (Meg Cabot’s The Princess Diaries) or lonely and isolated like Melinda Sordino (Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak). These were gals I could relate to!
I was drawn to Sterling Watson’s Fighting in the Shade (Akashic, August) specifically because I probably wouldn’t have given it a second glance as a teenager. Viewing the effects of hazing through the prism of a high school football team, Watson thoughtfully examines teenage boys’ struggles with such cultural rites of passage. Like all new team members, protagonist Billy is subjected to annual hazing rituals. He is forced to succumb to the humiliation or risk ostracism from his peers and his small town, where football is paramount. When he chooses to walk away from a brutal incident, he’s doomed to be an outsider.
Fighting in the Shade is more than just a sports novel. The plot has depth, and the pace is dynamic up until the (somewhat anticlimactic) ending. Billy is passionate, loyal, and strong, but at times vulnerable, making him a relatable protagonist for young male readers. Though some of the dialogue struck me as more 2011 than 1964, Watson contrasts lighthearted teenage banter on the field with disturbing, poignant moments of mortification. He effectively illustrates society’s expectations of young men and highlights the challenges for those, like Billy, who confront masculine norms.
I’ve also got to give Watson a shout-out for making space in such a male-dominated text to portray two powerful female voices: a rebellious and passionate schoolteacher and Billy’s classmate Moira. Both characters were a refreshing addition to the testosterone-heavy drama. And after all, I’ll always look back nostalgically on the Mias and Melindas of my high-school reading days…