In “Dead Boy Sledding; or, Why Things Happen,” a chapter in his autobiographical The King of the Mild Frontier (2003), Chris Crutcher remmbers being haunted by a childhood classmate's death. Another episode refers to his confrontations with censors for the provocative subject matter and raw language in his novels (Crutcher's books have been frequently challenged). When readers of Crutcher's newest novel wonder about its inspirations, they needn't look far: its themes of senseless tragedy and intellectual freedom serve as a natural postscript to his memoir. But this isn't nonfiction. In fact, it defies categorization, offering up a tasting menu of literary devices du jour, incorporating selective mutism, a narrator from beyond the grave, and a plot in which the author himself plays a major role. </>
The summer before Eddie Proffitt's freshman year of high school, his father and his best friend, Billy, die in violent accidents within the same month. Eddie is the first to stumble on the grisly bodies--a “hurricane of calamity” that shocks him speechless. Billy, who always kept tabs on smart but flighty Eddie in life, continues to do so from the grave, documenting Eddie's struggles and serving as a mystical guide, appearing to him in dreams of their favorite sledding spot, and exerting metaphysical “bumps” that jostle Eddie toward healing actions. Most pivotal is Eddie's decision to speak out against a powerful fundamentalist church's challenge of a gritty YA book assigned at school, a nonexistent novel called Warren Peece that deals with homosexuality and abortion and whose struggling characters make Eddie “feel less lonely.” The fabricated book's author? Chris Crutcher himself. </>
Most YAs will be drawn to this more for its paranormal premise than any burning curiosity about Crutcher or the issue of book banning. And, at least initially, Billy's creepy, detached narration doesn't disappoint. Telling stories “in [teens'] native tongue” (Eddie's librarian's words) has always been Crutcher's strong suit, and his gifts serve him well here; the juxtaposition of Billy's intimacy with eternal mysteries and his slang-inflected voice are inherently amusing (death is a “way different state”; eternity “a pretty cool place”). </>
nce the controversy heats up, though, the ghostly narrator begins to seem less like a quirky emissary from afterlife than an excuse for Crutcher to channel philosophical and spiritual views through a YA character: “If humans are ever to understand one another, they will have to come to terms with the concept, and the reality of relativity. . . . see how things look compared to other things.” For readers who question such articulate sermonizing from a 14-year-old, Billy begs their indulgence: “Death brings out the lyricist in me. I know words I never even heard. In every language.” The fluid walls between authorial and characters' points of view are overtly apparent when Crutcher himself appears at the book-banning hearing, points to a character who has just made a fervent, articulate plea, and says, “What she said.” The message, of course, is meant to be empowering, but it's still a message. </>
Avant-garde techniques such as authorial intrusions and “postmortalism”--a recently coined term for telling tales through a deceased character--are common in literature for adults today, but have been slower to enter the universe of YA fiction. For this reason, The Sledding Hill is likely to attract attention for its rupturing of familiar narrative rules, and many YAs will certainly find the self-referential loop-de-loop at book's end a heady new experience. But ultimately Crutcher's agenda swamps his characters and their stories, resulting in a book that is more like a set of talking points for freedom of speech than one that, like Eddie's cherished Warren Peece, will inspire YAs to stand up and do battle.