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Setting Free the Kites
     

Setting Free the Kites

5.0 1
by Alex George
 

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From the author of the “lyrical and compelling” (USA Today) novel A Good American comes a powerful story of two friends and the unintended consequences of friendship, loss, and hope.
 
For Robert Carter, life in his coastal Maine hometown is comfortably predictable. But in 1976, on his first day of eighth grade, he

Overview

From the author of the “lyrical and compelling” (USA Today) novel A Good American comes a powerful story of two friends and the unintended consequences of friendship, loss, and hope.
 
For Robert Carter, life in his coastal Maine hometown is comfortably predictable. But in 1976, on his first day of eighth grade, he meets Nathan Tilly, who changes everything. Nathan is confident, fearless, impetuous—and fascinated by kites and flying. Robert and Nathan’s budding friendship is forged in the crucible of two family tragedies, and as the boys struggle to come to terms with loss, they take summer jobs at the local rundown amusement park. It’s there that Nathan’s boundless capacity for optimism threatens to overwhelm them both, and where they learn some harsh truths about family, desire, and revenge.
 
Unforgettable and heart-breaking, Setting Free the Kites is a poignant and moving exploration of the pain, joy, and glories of young friendship.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
01/02/2017
George’s (A Good American) coming-of-age story set in Maine opens the summer of 1976, with Robert Carter anxious over the bullying that will surely resume with his return to middle school. This year, however, Nathan Tilly, a fearless new kid, steps in to protect Robert, and an important friendship begins. Tragedy and hardship visit both boys, and they rely on their bond as they face an otherwise lonely adolescence together. The settings in this touching story are frequently tinged with the magical quality of exploration—a seaside home north of Haverford “that edged into the dark waves of the Atlantic,” a windy beach cove “cut off at both ends by jagged promontories of rock” perfect for playing among the “columns of sun-bleached stones stacked one on top of another,” which Nathan’s mother crafted. The real treasure is the Arthurian-legend-themed amusement park Robert’s parents own and operate, where “teenage knights,” speaking in English accents, “clanked about in ill-fitting plastic armor and damsels swept up and down the pathways with bodices garlanded with ribbons.” While the dialogue is occasionally perfunctory or moralizing, George is masterly in his rendition of Maine landscapes and the emotional swings of adolescence. Throughout their mischievous hijinks the boys are always thoughtful and kind and their intentions are noble (even naïve), though serious danger is never far behind. Agent: Emma Sweeney, Emma Sweeney Agency. (Feb.)
Library Journal
02/15/2017
Set in the 1970s in a small coastal town in Maine, this generous, poignant novel addresses family, friendship, and dealing with catastrophic loss. The story centers on the Carter family and their two sons, Liam and Robert. Older son Liam is dying of muscular dystrophy, and this devastating circumstance is the gravitational center of the novel. Each family member must find a way to come to terms with this tragedy, and each struggles in a different way. The story is narrated by Robert, through whose eyes as a young man just coming of age, we bear witness to a terrible ordeal that tests everything this family believes about the world and themselves. George (A Good American) handles the psychological and emotional complexity of this situation with great compassion and skill. The bond that develops between Robert and Nathan Tilly, a new student in town, is superbly drawn and speaks with great eloquence about the power of friendship to heal and strengthen. It is what saves Robert. VERDICT A beautifully wrought work for fans of literary fiction and coming-of-age novels. [See Prepub Alert, 8/8/16.]—Patrick Sullivan, Manchester Community Coll., CT
School Library Journal
★ 05/01/2017
It's 1976, and on the first day of eighth grade, Hollis Calhoun is flushing Robert Carter's head down the school's toilet. Enter new boy Nathan Tilly, and the scene changes as a friendship forms. Robert and Nathan bring out the best in each other just long enough to cope with the deaths of Nathan's father and Robert's brother. Despite the tragedies, readers won't feel weighed down. Like the kites Nathan sets free, the prose soars as the author tackles first loves, best friends, and clever acts of revenge. George employs a style similar to that of Jean Shepherd (author of A Christmas Story), conjuring up a run-down amusement park, a man with a toe for a thumb, a dead mongoose, a chain-smoking dragon, and more. Also included are an oddly placed World War II flashback story and an unnecessarily long epilogue, but neither will detract from readers' enjoyment. The humor and poignancy of the boys' parallel experiences will give teens something to consider and discuss. VERDICT A wonderful tale that's full of boyhood charm and meaty enough to engage fans of literary historical fiction.—Pamela Schembri, Horace Greeley High School, Chappaqua, NY
Kirkus Reviews
2016-11-07
Two boys in 1970s Maine help each other weather tragedy.Robert Carter's friendship with the new kid in town, Nathan Tilly, gets off to a strong start in the middle school boys' room, where Nathan rescues him from a bully who has been beating the crap out of him year after year. Things head south the next day though, when Nathan's ebullient, kite-flying dad, who has promised to take them out for ice cream, falls off the roof of their house to his death, also crushing a mongoose named Philippe Petit (after the World Trade Center tightrope walker). This precipitous turn of events makes you wonder what to expect from the author—bold narrative moves or gratuitous tragedy? The answer is both. The highlight of the book is Fun-A-Lot, an amusement park owned by the Carter family. "The court of Camelot had been re-created on the coast of Southern Maine—Olde England in New England, as the legend above the gates put it. Teenage knights clanked about in ill-fitting plastic armor and damsels swept up and down the pathways in bodices garlanded with ribbons." (Shades of George Saunders' "My Chivalric Fiasco," though without the drugs.) As much as Robert's father hates his amusement park, it's dwarfed by the main source of misery in his life: Robert's older brother, Liam, who is gradually being debilitated by Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Liam's inexorable death, accompanied by a blistering soundtrack of the punk music he loves, devastates his family. But it does not slake the author's thirst for mayhem, as the final chapters of the book zip us back to World War II for mass murder of innocent civilians, kill off another main character, and throw in a little frustrated pedophilia. George (A Good American, 2012, etc.) can't separate his good ideas from his bad ones, but there's still a lot to enjoy here.
From the Publisher
“A warm, relatable—at times heartbreakingly so—story of two boys becoming men in 1970s Maine... George authentically relays the dynamic, difficult nature of families.”
Columbia Daily Tribune
 
“George’s effortless and beautiful prose flows off of the page to construct a timeless narrative of love, loss, kinship and how the connections we make will almost always find a way to affect us for the rest of our lives.”
Oxford Citizen
 
“George combines wit, sorrow and nostalgia into a story readers young and old will not forget... heartbreaking and real.”
Vox Magazine

Setting Free the Kites is a serious but breezy work, a sad but delightful story, and just right for thumbing through at the beach this summer.”
Down East Magazine

“A mesmerizing and eloquent read... This is a book that takes hold of your life, so much that you forget the individuals are fictional and assume them as characters in your everyday life... Highly, highly recommended.”
Jenn's Bookshelves

“Heart-rending... A beautifully told, nostalgic tale about friendship, George brings to life true, strongly independent characters... An effecting, emotional read. So many excellently crafted details are packed into its pages, poignantly capturing the rapid change of emotions during adolescence”
Portland Press Herald
 
“A dandy book.”
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
 
A moving novel of friendship, family, loss and reconcilation... an emotionally resonant novel”
Shelf Awareness

“This generous, poignant novel addresses family, friendship, and dealing with catastrophic loss... a beautifully wrought work for fans of literary fiction and coming-of-age novels.”
Library Journal

“[A] touching story . . . George is masterly in his rendition of Maine landscapes and the emotional swings of adolescence.”
Publishers Weekly

“A lovely meditation on young friendship and the harsh realities of growing up.”
Book Riot

“It's sort of early to be carving titles into the marble ‘Best of 2017’ lists already, but it would be a surprise if I didn't end the year as impressed and moved by this novel as I am right now… With echoes of Stephen King's ‘Joyland’ and ‘The Body’ as well as John Knowles' A Separate PeaceSetting Free the Kites features unforgettable characters and a nice little twist.”
New London Day
 
“George’s writing has tremendous voice, one that brings these adolescent boys to life as few others do.”
Seattle Book Mama

“Replete with soaring emotion. Setting Free the Kites is a coming-of-age novel driven by the forces of hope. Alex George skillfully proves that the tethers of a painful past can be cut, freeing us to rise above our circumstances if only we have fearless hearts.”
— SARAH McCOY, New York Times and international bestselling author of The Mapmaker's Children

“I think I fell a little in love with Alex George's Setting Free the Kites when I heard the beautiful title. Luckily, the book itself—colorful, poignant, winning and touching—does not disappoint and seduces like a spring breeze. Mr. George, please consider me one of your new and ardent admirers.”
— GEORGE HODGMAN
, author of Bettyville

“In Setting Free the Kites, Alex George has written a captivating, lyrical novel with scenes so crisp and moving you will find yourself holding your breath as page by page he renders the profundity of childhood, the primality of longing, and breaks your heart. It’s an absorbing novel, with place and people crafted so fully they become real and important to the reader. A full and beautiful book.”
— MEGAN MAYHEW BERGMAN
, author of Almost Famous Women

“Alex George’s brilliant new novel explores a life-changing boyhood friendship in the ‘70s, the way first love can whack you out of balance, the terror of an ill child and the way memories can haunt or free you. So exquisitely written, I was underlining sentences, and so engrossing, I read through the night.  Funny, devastating and so human and humane, the novel is filled with characters so alive and complex, that I ached to continue on in their lives.  But most important of all is this: Loss, George says, can destroy us, but it can also create us, giving possibility rapturous flight.”
— CAROLINE LEAVITT
, New York Times bestselling author of Is This Tomorrow and Pictures of You

“A profoundly moving, charming, heart-breaking, heart-lifting portrait of childhood, parenthood, and friendship. I couldn’t love it more. With a down-on-its-heels amusement park as the perfect backdrop, Setting Free the Kites is both elegiac and comical, a celebration of adolescent stumbling-around. This book is a treasure.”
— TIMOTHY SCHAFFERT
, author of The Swan Gondola

“Can it be that John Irving’s heir is a British import, writing in the Midwest? Setting Free the Kites is as American as Garp, as heartbreaking as Owen Meany, and as hilarious as Hotel New Hampshire. Alex George proves himself a master storyteller, and with a magic all his own he has tied these elements together behind an unforgettable tale. All the pain, the joy, the absurdity of an American childhood is here, the sting of marriage, the bonds of brotherhood, brilliantly rendered in a book you will want to recommend to everyone. Family is a language we can barely understand ourselves, and this story is a brave and beautiful translation.”
LYDIA NETZER
, author of Shine Shine Shine

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780399162107
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
02/21/2017
Pages:
336
Sales rank:
149,577
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***

Copyright © 2017 Alex George

PROLOGUE

Haverford, Maine, 2015 

Nathan Tilly gave me the story I’m going to tell, but it was the old paper mill that set my memories free.

I read the report in the Haverford Gazette the previous week.  The mill has not been operational for more than fifty years, but now the land has been sold to a supermarket chain, and the old building is to be razed to make way for a customer parking lot.  The news has prompted vigorous local debate.  Some are angry that the city council has allowed part of our municipal heritage to be sold off.  Others are excited at the prospect of fresh bagels.  Such is progress. 

For myself, I’m sorry to see the old place go.  I want to pay my last respects, watch the thing go down. 

The lower end of Bridge Street is lined with mud-encrusted pick-ups and vans.  I have to double back and park on the other side of the river.  It is a beautiful, fresh spring morning.  The faintest of breezes is coming in off the ocean.  As I walk across the bridge I can hear someone shouting instructions through a bullhorn.

Warning signs have been posted along the road, keeping the curious at bay.  Authorized Personnel OnlyHard Hat Required.  I keep my distance.  A huge crane is parked in front of the old building, its arm stretched high into the sky.  A wrecking ball hangs at the end of the crane’s thick steel rope, fat and heavy with the threat of violence.  The mill’s giant wooden doors have been padlocked shut my entire life, but now they are opened wide, and early morning sunlight falls into the cathedral-like space where vast pulping machines once rumbled from dawn to dusk, the town’s beating heart.  Workmen in reflector vests walk in and out, murmuring into walkie-talkies.  I guess they are checking all three floors for uninvited visitors before the walls start crashing down.

The mill’s red brick chimney rises tall and straight into the sky.  By lunchtime it will be gone.

At precisely nine o’clock there is a long, shrill blast from a whistle.  A man climbs into the cabin of the crane and turns on the ignition.  As the engine rumbles to life, the arm of the crane begins to move from side to side, and the wrecking ball starts to swing. 

The old mill has been on the brink of demolition for years.  Up and down this part of the southern Maine coast, from Biddeford to Brunswick, abandoned industrial buildings have been rescued and revivified, artfully repurposed for twenty-first century living.  Those ancient spaces have been reborn as art galleries, office suites with double-height ceilings, and organic delicatessens selling squid ink pasta from Umbria and artisanal cheeses from Vermont.  Everyone has been waiting for a similar metamorphosis to happen in Haverford.  It hasn’t been for want of trying: in 2004 a consortium of property speculators from away went crazy for the mill’s exposed brickwork.  An architect was commissioned to design a warren of luxury condominiums with reclaimed timber floors and glinting chrome appliances.  But the town lacked the necessary real estate mojo to pull it off.  No matter how pretty the artist’s impressions in the brochure looked, nobody was buying.  Not a single unit was sold, and the promised renovation never happened.  The place has remained abandoned and deserted ever since.

The wrecking ball is swinging fiercely now, slicing through the air in ever more violent arcs.  The crane operator begins to rotate the cabin, gradually turning it toward the old walls.  I feel my body stiffen in anticipation of the first impact.  When it comes, there is an infernal roar of collapsing brick, crushed wood, and splintering glass.  That’s when I feel a release within me, a quiet letting go.  The crane operator edges the caterpillar tracks forward a few feet, and moments later another slab of wall disappears.  A fog of atomized red brick hangs over the rubble.  I watch for a few minutes, and then turn away.  There is nothing more to see. 

As I walk back over the bridge, I think about those two gravity-defying summers, almost forty years ago, when the old mill gave us shelter, and Nathan Tilly’s gift for boundless hope gave us wings.  Nathan loved the mill so much.  Inside those old brick walls, the light of uncomplicated happiness shone down on us, as warm and as comforting as the sun. 

But such a bright light casts long, dark shadows.

I open the door of my car and climb in.  I rest my hands on the steering wheel and gaze back across the bridge.  The wrecking ball is still swinging hard, making its way toward the mill’s chimney.

I do not want to see the chimney fall.  I drive away.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1976

ONE

Sometimes life-changing moments slip by unnoticed, their significance only becoming apparent in the light of subsequent events.  But Nathan Tilly was never one for the subtle approach.

The summer of 1976 had been long and humid.  The horseflies had been larger and more vicious than in past years, which was saying something.  They had swarmed around me, taking painful chunks out of my sweet, thirteen year-old flesh.  My legs and upper body bore the scars of months of relentless attack.  For me the smell of summer was not the salty tang of the ocean, nor the ambrosial scent of young blueberries, but the sour chemical whiff of antiseptic cream that my mother would slather on my bumpy mosaic of bites, a constellation of unending irritation.  On the first day of my eighth grade year at Longfellow Middle School, my shoulders were still itching from the horseflies’ diabolical attention. 

My discomfort was also, I am sure, a physical manifestation of the anxiety that I was feeling that day.  I had been dreading the start of the new school year all summer.  Every blissfully unscheduled day of vacation was, to me, just one step closer to seeing Hollis Calhoun again.

For most of the previous year, Hollis Calhoun had bullied me without mercy.  He undertook a campaign of terrors, small and large.  Some of it was innocuous enough – an unanticipated cuff around the back of the head in the corridor, a sharp elbow jab to the ribs in the cafeteria line – but he also liked to corner me out of sight of others, and inflict more elaborate, sustained cruelties.  He crowded in on me, heavy and huge, obliterating the world beyond his fists.  His violence was claustrophobic as well as cruel. There was a warped intimacy in all those carefully administered punches and kicks.  He would scrutinize my face intently as he hurt me, delighted by the fear in my eyes.

For all his thuggery, Hollis possessed a nuanced understanding of the psychological mechanics of terror.  He took care to ensure that his attacks were never predictable.  Not knowing when they might come, I was in a constant state of high alert.  Sometimes he would leave me alone for days, which had the paradoxical effect of ratcheting up my sense of impending dread.  When I finally saw him lumbering toward me, I felt something oddly close to relief that the wait was over.  The threat of Hollis Calhoun’s fists that marauded across my fevered imagination was worse than any blow they could land in actuality.

There had been nothing I could do to make Hollis stop, since he didn’t appear to want anything from me.  My terror seemed to be an end unto itself.  He never told me what I had done to deserve his attention, and always the same unanswered question would fog my panicked brain as he approached me with that malevolent look in his eye: why me?

Hollis was a year older than me, and I had consoled myself with the thought that at least he would be graduating to high school in the fall.  Then, a week before the school year ended, Hollis had cornered me in the boys’ locker room.  He pressed one side of my face into the cold floor, his knee in the small of my back, and told me that he was being held back a grade.  He would be at Longfellow again next year.  He banged my head against the tiles a couple of times, as if this was somehow my fault. 

As I pushed open the door to my classroom, the prospect of seeing Hollis Calhoun again, combined with the ferocious itching beneath my shirt, had plunged me into my own universe of self-pity.  I sat down at the nearest desk and opened my bag.  As usual, my mother had left me a folded note.  Her choice of quotation that day seemed especially apt.

The Lord is my helper; I will not fear.  What can man do to me?

  

Hebrews, 13:6

 

That was indeed the question.  I had spent much of the last three months anxiously imagining what abominations Hollis had in mind for me.  I looked up gloomily, and noticed an unfamiliar presence in the row ahead.  Most of my classmates were already slumped in bored disaffection over their desks, but a new boy I did not recognize sat bolt upright in his chair.  His hair was as black as the leather on my mother’s Bible.  He wore a green cable-knit turtleneck sweater, which looked insufferably hot on that warm morning.  While I was surreptitiously examining him, he turned and looked right at me.  Our eyes met for the briefest of moments, and then I looked away.  New arrivals were to be treated with extreme caution until their position in the classroom pecking order could be calibrated.  I bent down and pretended to look for something in my bag.  The new boy didn’t turn back around, though.  He kept looking at me. 

The day dragged on impossibly slowly, but not slowly enough for me.  As the hands on the clock above the blackboard crept toward the final bell, I could feel the fear rising in my throat. 

As soon as classes were over I ran to fetch my things, hoping for a quick escape, but Hollis Calhoun was already waiting for me, leaning against the door of my locker.  To my dismay, he seemed to have grown even bigger over the summer.  We looked at each other without speaking.  There was nothing to be said. Hollis twisted my arm roughly behind my back and began to march me against the tide of students who were streaming toward the exit. The corridors became more deserted as we walked toward the back of the school.  Like a nostalgic lover, Hollis was taking me back to one of our old haunts.  He stopped in front of the boys’ locker room, and pushed me inside. 

He grabbed my shirt and shoved me up against the wall, snapping my head backwards.  The summer evaporated in an instant.  Pinned there by his fists, it felt as if we had never been apart.  Hollis was peering beadily at me.  I averted my gaze and said nothing.  After a moment he relaxed his grip, took a half step away from me, and put a ferocious knee into my thigh.  I yelped and dropped to the ground.  He pushed me over on to my back with his foot.  Pain began to radiate across my lower body.  Killer dead legs were a specialty of his.  He held me down and went to work on my upper arms, pressing and pulling my skin into fat knots of pain.  He found the worst of my horsefly bites and pinched them with brutal relish. 

“Oh, this is just like old times, isn’t it?” he whispered.  “Are you ready for another year of fun?”

Before I could answer Hollis hauled me to my feet and dragged me to the nearest cubicle.  He flung open the door and pushed me inside. Still holding the collar of my shirt, he flipped up the lid of the toilet.  He kicked the backs of my legs and I collapsed to my knees. 

“I thought we might try something new,” said Hollis.  He grabbed my hair and pushed my head into the toilet bowl.  I just had time to take a deep breath before he pulled the chain.  He held my head firmly in place as water sluiced through my mouth and up my nose. When he finally yanked me out of the bowl I sucked air into my lungs, and then started coughing.  Hollis did not relinquish his grip on my collar.  “We’re just getting started,” he told me.  To my disappointment, I felt the prickle of tears at the corners of my eyes. 

Just then there was a loud bang, and Hollis lurched into me.  The door of the cubicle had been flung open.  Standing there was the new boy from class that morning. 

“Let him go!” he yelled.

Hollis and I were both too surprised to speak.  Neither of us really wanted to be interrupted.  Hollis was too busy enjoying himself, and I didn’t want my humiliation made worse by a witness.  As we stared at our intruder, he began kicking Hollis on the shins.  In that tiny cubicle there was nowhere for Hollis to go.  Laughing, he let go of me for a moment and tried to push the boy away.  His attacker responded by stepping in closer and hammering his fists against Hollis’s chest.  He was no match for Hollis physically, but what he lacked in strength he made up for with sheer ferocity.  The cubicle was crowded with the three of us squeezed in there.  The new boy was by the door and I was still kneeling in front of the toilet bowl.  Sandwiched between us, Hollis had no room to defend himself properly or mete out retribution.  The boy stepped in to deliver another flurry of punches, which Hollis swatted away. He had stopped laughing by then.  Now the fight was conducted almost entirely in silence.  All I could hear was the boy’s heavy breathing, and a few grunts from Hollis whenever a punch landed on target.  I cowered on the floor, hoping not to be kicked.  My head and shirt were soaking wet.  The world beyond the cubicle vanished.  The three of us were so focused on the strange, unequal struggle within its walls that we failed to hear the door of the locker room open.

The shout of anger that followed we heard well enough.

TWO

Ten minutes later, the three of us were sitting on a bench in a deserted school corridor.  The janitor who had interrupted the fight had hauled us out of the cubicle, one by one, grabbing us by the scruffs of our necks like newborn kittens.  Identifying Hollis Calhoun and the new boy as the principal antagonists, he had propelled them angrily in front of him toward the principal’s office.  I – obviously the victim of whatever malfeasance was being perpetrated – had been left to trail behind them. 

Now I was wedged uncomfortably in between the other two boys.  My shirt was soaking wet, and the brisk efficiency of the school’s air conditioning was starting to make me shiver.  Hollis Calhoun glowered over my head at my new classmate.

“You got a name, hero?” he muttered.

The boy turned to look at him.  “Nathan Tilly,” he said.

“You’ve got a nerve, interrupting us like that,” said Hollis.

“More nerve than you, that’s for sure,” said the boy. 

For a gratifying moment it looked as if Hollis had swallowed his tongue.

I turned toward Nathan Tilly.  “I really wouldn’t –”

“Do you always pick on people half your size?” asked Nathan, ignoring my warning.  “Scared of a fair fight, are you?”

Hollis’s neck had turned red.  “The only person who should be scared right now,” he said, “is you.”

Nathan Tilly picked an invisible piece of lint off his sweater.  “Oh, I’m scared all right.”  He held up a hand and began to count on his fingers.  “I’m scared that my mongoose is going to run away.  I’m scared that my father is going to fall off his boat and drown himself, because he’s a lousy swimmer.  I’m scared that Frank Lucchesi is going to stay on as manager of the Texas Rangers and run the team into the ground.”

“You have a mongoose?” I said.

“I’m scared that the Russians are going to blow us all to smithereens,” continued Nathan Tilly.  “I’m scared that I’ll never fall in love.  And, just between you and me,” – he leaned in conspiratorially – “I’m a tiny bit scared of spiders.  You know, the fat, hairy ones.”  He paused, and looked directly at Hollis.  “But one thing I am not scared of,” he said, “is you.”

I gazed at Nathan Tilly in wonder.  Hollis Calhoun was staring at him, too.

When we had read Rikki-Tikki-Tavi in seventh grade, we’d done a whole unit on the mongoose.  “Mongooses are illegal in this country,” I said.

“Maybe they are, maybe not,” said Nathan Tilly carelessly.

“Why do you have a mongoose?” I asked.

“To catch snakes.”  

“Snakes?”

“This was when we lived in Texas,” explained Nathan Tilly.  “Our backyard was full of copperheads and cottonmouths.  A mongoose loves to kill snakes, but he’s not found a single one since we moved to Maine.  I think he’s bored.”  He turned to Hollis.  “That’s why I’m scared he’ll run away,” he explained. 

Hollis was still unable to speak.

“Is he a pet?” I asked.

“Well, we keep him outside.  He’s tethered to a rope, near the house.  Otherwise he’d disappear into the forest and we’d never see him again.” 

I imagined the mongoose, hitching a lift south, back to Texas and the snakes. “Where in Texas are you from?” I asked him.

“A small town in the west.  Nowhere you’ve heard of.”

All I knew about Texas was that the Johnson Space Center was in Houston, and President Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas.  In my imagination it was a vast desert, populated by rugged, dusty cowboys with big hats.  It couldn’t have been much more different from coastal Maine. 

“When did you move here?” I asked him.

“At the start of the summer.”

“Do you like it?”

Nathan Tilly looked at me.  “You sure do ask a lot of questions,” he said. 

“Sorry,” I said, blushing.

“What’s your name?” asked Nathan.

“Oh, don’t you know?  This is the great Robert Carter.”  Hollis had finally recovered the use of his voice.  “But he’s far too important to bother with people like you and me.”

“He doesn’t look very important,” said Nathan.

Hollis gave me a quick cuff on the back of my head.  “His family owns the amusement park outside of town.  I just spent the summer working there, earning crap wages.”  He looked at me with contempt.  “I didn’t see him working, though.  He was probably sitting by his swimming pool being fed ice cream by his butler.” 

I closed my eyes.  So that was why Hollis had been picking on me all this time – he thought I was a member of the town’s privileged elite.  When he hit me, he was (literally) striking a blow for the downtrodden proletariat.  I shouldn’t have been surprised.  Hollis wasn’t the first person to imagine that my family was wealthy.  I’d been encountering the same assumptions and petty jealousies since kindergarten.

“We don’t have a butler,” I said wearily.  “Or a swimming pool.”

“I didn’t even know there was an amusement park,” said Nathan.

I looked at him gratefully.

“Listen,” said Hollis.  “When they ask us what was going on back there, we’ll tell them that we were fooling about, OK?  Just a little bit of fun.  Nothing serious.  Got it?”

The last thing I wanted was to give Hollis Calhoun’s bullying the additional fuel of self-righteous vengeance.  I nodded.  “Nothing serious,” I repeated.

“What about you, Nathan Tilly?” said Hollis.  “Do we have a deal?”

Before Nathan could answer, a familiar voice called my name, followed by the anxious clip of sensible shoes hurrying down the corridor.  My mother came to a stop in front of the bench.  She clutched her handbag in front of her like a shield, as if it might ward off whatever unpleasantness was about to happen.  She looked me up and down.  “Robert,” she said.  “You’re soaking wet.  What’s been going on?”

Hollis Calhoun shifted a little closer to me, radiating menace.  “We were just having a bit of fun,” I mumbled.  “Nothing serious.”

My mother glanced between Hollis and Nathan Tilly.  “I got called into school because of a bit of fun?” she said.  Hollis stared down at the space between his feet, smirking.  Nathan Tilly looked my mother in the eye and, to my horror, gave her a wink.  To my surprise, she blushed.  Without another word, she turned away and pushed open the door to the principal’s office.

The three of us sat in an uneasy silence for a few minutes.  I wondered what story my mother was being told.  Over the years she had spent many hours in tense conference with school principals, but never because of me.  My flawless behavioral record was about to be compromised, and she looked as if her heart was going to break.  I gazed resentfully at Nathan Tilly.  This was all his fault.  Whatever private misery Hollis Calhoun might have inflicted on me would have been preferable to the circus of recrimination that I would now have to endure.  I had never told anyone about Hollis’s bullying, because my silence allowed me to contain the damage he could cause.  The last thing I needed was well-meaning adults clucking in disapproval and trying to make things better.  I knew they would only make things worse.

More footsteps echoed down the corridor.  When I looked up I was surprised to see a man approaching us.  (I had seen countless mothers arrive to collect their children from the principal’s office, but I couldn’t remember ever seeing a father show up before.)  The man had an untamed beard, peppered with grey.  A dark blue sailor’s cap was pulled down low over his forehead at an incongruously jaunty angle. 

“Ahoy!” called the man, his deep voice booming down the deserted corridor.

“That’s my dad,” said Nathan, unnecessarily.

Mr. Tilly stopped in front of us and looked at his son.  “Didn’t take you long to be sent to the principal’s office, did it?” he said.  To my surprise, his face broke into a wide grin.  “Excellent work, Nathan.  First class.”  He turned to me.  “Who are you?” he asked.

“This is Robert Carter,” said Nathan.

Nathan’s father looked at me.  “Why are you so wet, Robert Carter?”

I felt Hollis’s flat eyes on me.  “We were just having a bit of fun,” I said.

“Really.  Fun for whom, I wonder,” said Mr. Tilly.  This was met with three blank looks.  “Oh, I see,” he said cheerfully.  “Honor among thieves, is it?”  He removed his cap and tucked it under his arm.  “Well, we’ll get to the bottom of it soon enough.”  With that he turned and pushed through the door of the principal’s office.

After a moment Hollis spoke.  “If we all keep quiet, they won’t be able to prove anything.”

“Which would be great for you,” said Nathan.

Hollis looked at him.  “And for you.”

“What about Robert, though?” said Nathan.

“I’m fine,” I said anxiously.

Just then the door to the office opened and the principal’s secretary stuck her head out.  “You can come in now,” she said.

The principal of Longfellow Middle School, Mr. Pritchard, was in the twilight of a long and dispiriting career.  He had taught eighth grade English for twenty years, and his heart still beat blackly with the accumulated disappointments born of unsuccessfully cajoling generations of sullen thirteen year-olds into reading Huckleberry Finn.  But if his time as an educator had been unfulfilling for everyone involved, now Mr. Pritchard had found his true métier.  He was a born administrator.  He loved to impose order upon chaos. Insubordination and rule-breaking were not tolerated.  Sanctions were imposed swiftly and without mercy. 

As we filed silently in, Mr. Pritchard glared at us from behind his desk.  My mother and Mr. Tilly were sitting to one side.  We shuffled to an awkward halt in the middle of the room.  Principal Pritchard looked us over, not bothering to hide his irritation.

“We might as well begin,” he said.  “We called your mother, Hollis, but apparently she was too busy to come in.”  He did not sound surprised.  I guessed that Hollis’s mother and the principal were already well acquainted.  “So, gentlemen.  Restroom cubicles are designed to accommodate one person, not three.  And they really just have one function.  So will someone explain what the three of you were doing?”

There was a long silence.  Finally Hollis spoke up.  “We were just having a little bit of fun,” he said. 

“A bit of fun,” said Mr. Pritchard.

“You know, fooling around,” elaborated Hollis.

Mr. Pritchard’s eyes settled on me.  “Would you agree, Robert?  You were just fooling around?  Because it looks as if you were fooling around more than anyone else.”

I didn’t dare look up.  I didn’t want to see the disappointment on my mother’s face. “Just a bit of fun,” I agreed.

“That’s a big fat lie.”  Nathan Tilly pointed at Hollis, and then at me.  “He was flushing his head down the toilet.  And before that he was hitting him and kicking him.  I heard it all.”

My mother stiffened in her seat.

Mr. Pritchard looked at me.  “Is that true?”

“Of course it’s true,” said Nathan’s father.  “He’s soaking wet, for God’s sake.  How else do you explain that?”

“We were just fooling around,” said Hollis again.

Mr. Pritchard cleared his throat.  “And what were you doing in the boys’ locker room so long after the last bell, Nathan?  You should have been out of the school gates and on your way home by then.”

“I got lost,” said Nathan. 

“Lost?” echoed Mr. Pritchard.  As the word hung in the air, the question seemed to morph into an accusation.

“It’s his first day,” said Nathan’s father.  “Have you never taken a wrong turn before?”

“I’m just trying to establish what happened here,” answered Mr. Pritchard stiffly. 

“He’s already told you,” said Mr. Tilly.  “Robert was being bullied, and Nathan tried to stop it.  My son’s done nothing wrong.”  He pointed at the principal.  “You have a bullying problem. And I want to know what the hell you’re going to do about it.”

Mr. Pritchard looked rattled.  He didn’t like having his prosecutorial process disrupted by rowdy parents.  “First of all,” he bristled, “we don’t use that kind of language here.”

Nathan’s father frowned.  “What kind of language?”

“What you said.  That word.”  Mr. Pritchard paused.  “H–E–Double hockey sticks.” 

There was a moment’s silence, and then Mr. Tilly began to roar with laughter.  A rich, deep, thunderous gale of unbounded hilarity ricocheted off the office walls.  He was laughing so hard that he bent forward and grabbed his stomach as it shook – it was, quite literally, a belly laugh.  Mr. Tilly’s amusement was infectious.  As I watched him, it was impossible not to smile, too.  I glanced across at Nathan, who had begun to laugh as well.  My mother was looking at her shoes, but the corner of her mouth was twitching upward into a grin.  Hollis smirked.  The only person who was not laughing was Mr. Pritchard, who sat behind his desk, his cheeks pink with anger.

Nathan’s father did his best to compose himself, but it was clear that he was having difficulty keeping a straight face.  “I’m sorry,” he said, obviously not sorry in the slightest, “but do people really talk that way around here?”

“Some of us do,” said Mr. Pritchard, tight-lipped.  “You’re not in Texas any more, Mr. Tilly.”

“Oh, don’t I know it.  In Texas people would be more worried about the fact that students are being bullied, instead of objecting to my language.”  Mr. Tilly had stopped laughing now.  “I should give you a real four letter word to complain about.”

I decided that I liked Nathan’s father.

Mr. Pritchard had picked up a pen and was stabbing its nib into the topmost piece of paper on his desk.  He finally looked up at me.  “Has this ever happened before, Robert?” he asked.

“No,” I said.

“That’s a big fat lie, too,” said Nathan Tilly.  “I heard them talking in the locker room.  This was going on last year, too.”

“Is that true?” asked my mother sharply.

“You need to get your house in order,” Nathan’s father told Mr. Pritchard.  “Shall I spell out what that looks like to me?  It starts with a B.  Then U, L, L, S, H –”

“Really,” said the principal, “there’s really no need to be quite so –”

“Who knows how much longer this would have gone on if Nathan hadn’t intervened?” asked Mr. Tilly.  “I want to know what you’re going to do to stop this from happening again.”

Mr. Pritchard went very still for a moment, and then he stood up.  “I don’t think we’ll need to worry too much about that,” he said.

We all looked at him, surprised.

“This matter is closed,” said Mr. Pritchard.  “I can assure you, Mr. Tilly, and you, Mrs. Carter, that everything will be taken care of.  You may all go.  Except you, Hollis.  You stay.”

Hollis shot me a poisonous look as my mother ushered me out of the room.  We stood in the empty corridor with Nathan and his father.  My mother’s face was pale.  I wasn’t looking forward to the trip home.

“I’m Leonard Tilly,” said Nathan’s father, extending his hand toward my mother. 

They shook.  “Mary Carter.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“I wish the circumstances had been different,” said my mother.  She turned to Nathan.  “Thank you, Nathan,” she said.  “That was a brave thing you did.”  She nudged me.

“Yeah, thanks,” I mumbled.

Nathan beamed at us, oblivious to the bucketfuls of discomfort he had heaped upon me.  My mother was right.  It was a brave thing that he’d done.  And he wasn’t scared of Hollis Calhoun, not one bit.  Nathan Tilly, I decided, was either a hero or an idiot.  Whichever it was, I couldn’t help but like him. 

“Well look,” said Mr. Tilly, “I think this calls for some sort of celebration.”  He rubbed his hands together.  “Good conquering evil, a triumph for the underdog, all that stuff.  We should all go and have some ice cream, or gin, or something.  What do you say?”

“We really need to be getting home,” said my mother.  “Robert’s brother is in the house on his own, and he doesn’t like to be left alone for too long.”

This wasn’t true, and she knew it.  Whenever he had the house to himself Liam played his punk records as loud as he could, gleefully rocking back and forth in his wheelchair, rattling the window frames with all the noise.

“Perhaps another time then,” said Mr. Tilly.

“That would be great,” I said.

He looked at me kindly.  “We’ll plan on it,” he said.  “And don’t worry,” he added, turning to my mother, “we’ll mainly eat ice cream.  No more than a glass or two of gin, I promise.”

My mother smiled wanly.

“Quite an eventful first day of school, all in all,” said Mr. Tilly, ruffling his son’s hair.  “Are you ready to go home?”  Nathan nodded.  They turned and began to walk down the corridor.  As I watched them go, something occurred to me.

“Mr. Tilly?” I called.

They turned back to look at me.

I cleared my throat.  “Do you really have a mongoose?”

“Of course we do.”

I couldn’t help myself.  “But aren’t mongooses illegal?”

Nathan’s father grinned at me. 

“Maybe they are, maybe not,” he said.

Meet the Author

The author of A Good American, Alex George is an Englishman who lives, works, and writes in the middle of America. He studied law at Oxford University and worked for eight years as a corporate lawyer in London and Paris before moving to the United States. He lives in Missouri with his family.

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Setting Free the Kites 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Sandy5 4 months ago
4.5 stars This is one of those novels that I felt that I drifted through. This was an excellent story and although I don’t think I was deeply connected to the characters, I was. I didn’t think I knew them, I didn’t think I knew what made them tick yet as their lives became larger and richer, I cared deeply for them and was rooting for them. This novel moved quickly, I didn’t put it down, I couldn’t put it down for I had to know what the final chapters had in store. And then, the author wrote in a few sentences that threw me for a loop, why he did that I will never know but he could have left them out and I would have loved the novel much more. For these sentences stopped me, they made me analyze this novel in a whole different light. What purpose did these sentences bring and why here and now did he include them? Are these characters different now? Why, oh why did he do this? Robert is ready for 8th grade, he’s ready for the bullying to begin, just like last year. Hollis is ready for Robert as he leads him into the bathroom, flushing his head into the toilet as Robert fights back. Nathan, a new student walks in and sticks up for Robert. It is now Robert, Hollis and Nathan in the principal’s office as the story is replayed. I have to say that this part of the story has a happy ending but as the novel continues there are ups and downs as Robert and Nathan’s friendship strengthens. Both of these families have heartache and love within them and the boys experience each other’s pain and happiness like brothers, they begin to bond. Each day, their friendship become stronger and in the end, I don’t want the novel to end. When I fly a kite in the future, I will be thinking of Robert and Nathan, their fathers were such an influence on both of them. I highly recommend this novel and I want to thank Candlewick Press for putting this novel on my radar and sending me this copy, it was fantastic. I received a copy of this novel from Candlewick Press in exchange for an honest review.