The 2014 Winner of the William C. Morris Award
When you've been kept caged in the dark, it's impossible to see the forest for the trees. It's impossible to see anything, really. Not without bars . . .
In Stephanie Kuehn's brilliant debut Charm & Strange, Andrew Winston Winters is at war with himself.
He's part Win, the lonely teenager exiled to a remote Vermont boarding school in the wake of a family tragedy. The guy who shuts all his classmates out, no matter the cost.
He's part Drew, the angry young boy with violent impulses that control him. The boy who spent a fateful, long-ago summer with his brother and teenage cousins, only to endure a secret so monstrous it led three children to do the unthinkable.
Over the course of one night, while stuck at a party deep in the New England woods, Andrew battles both the pain of his past and the isolation of his present.
Before the sun rises, he'll either surrender his sanity to the wild darkness inside his mind or make peace with the most elemental of truths-that choosing to live can mean so much more than not dying.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I don’t feel the presence of God here.
I pace along the far side of the river, my ears filled with the hum of cicadas and the roar of water flowing over the milldam. Vermont is postcard perfect. I could stand on my toes and peer over the current and the cattails and see the whole town spread before me. Green-shuttered houses. The cobblestone square. The church spire. The boarding school.
But I don’t.
I crave the illusion of solitude.
The dark-haired girl, who looks like a boy, watches me from the woods. She’s hunkered down in a birch thicket with bare legs and discerning eyes. I know what she saw and I don’t want her to talk to me, but she’ll try. I’m sure of this. She mistakes my distance for mystery, and she wants to know why I do the things I do.
My sister was the same way. She thought there was a reason for everything.
Me? I don’t think there’s a reason for anything.
* * *
Seven years ago, I strode onto the local country club court beneath a punishing Charlottesville sun like a mini Roger Federer. I had the headband. The tennis whites. The killer instinct.
I was nine.
My opponent was Soren Nichols, a nobody compared to me, top seed in the U10 bracket. But I was off my game, got in trouble early. Soren, who had a decent serve and quick feet, easily took advantage of my unforced errors and double faults.
It didn’t take long. I didn’t know how to come from behind. I lost in straight sets in front of the home crowd. Without so much as a glance in the direction of my parents or my coach, I stalked to the net and reached across to shake Soren’s hand.
“Good game,” I said through clenched teeth.
“Thanks, Drew. You too.” He had a sheepish grin and southern drawl.
Something dark roiled in my gut. A subterranean shift.
No, that was not a good game. Not for me.
People got to their feet between matches, milling across the court, the club grounds. I trailed Soren as his mother hugged him and his father clapped his back. Then I slipped into the narrow alley that ran back toward the clubhouse and waited in the shadows beneath the grandstand.
When he passed by, I stepped onto the walkway. No one could see us.
“Hey,” I said softly.
Soren turned. I took my racket, reached behind me, and cracked it full force across the side of his face. Then I jumped back and gave a little yell of surprise. Like I didn’t know what had happened.
That’s exactly what I told everyone when I ran for help. I don’t know. I don’t know, I don’t know how he got hurt. I was running. Maybe I slipped. Maybe he fell. I don’t know.
I shook with shame, not regret. Soren was out cold. When he first came to, he really didn’t know. All that swelling. The blood.
An ambulance came. Then a cop car.
When pressed harder about it, I cried. A lot.
* * *
“Why’d you let them do that?” the girl asks as she crawls from the bushes. She holds the headphones of her mp3 player carefully in one hand. Her hair’s so short, it’s practically a Caesar cut, but she still has to brush dirt and leaves out of it now that she’s standing in the open.
I edge away from her. Play dumb. Yeah, I know she’s a transfer student, and sure, we have a class together and she just joined the cross-country team, but it’s not like any of that means I want to have an actual conversation with her. Why would I? No one around here ever talks to me without reason.
None of them good.
“Do what?” I ask cautiously.
“Let them get away with pushing you while you were … you know.” She points to my leg. It’s soaked with piss—my own, courtesy of two classmates who decided to assault me on their way back to campus. And no, I didn’t fight back. I never do. That wouldn’t be fair.
Besides, there’s not a lot you can do when somebody punches you midstream.
The girl clears her throat. She’s waiting for my answer, but I step up my playing-dumb game by saying nothing.
She frowns. “So you’re just cool with being treated like that?”
Like what? I wonder, but give a careless shrug. “Kind of looks that way.”
There’s silence and squinting. Her ears aren’t even pierced and she’s wearing oversized athletic shorts that look cheap, like something you’d find in the clearance aisle at CVS. They drape past her knees and bear the silver-and-black logo of some professional sports team. Her whole look is at odds with the rest of the girls around here, who like to show off as much skin as possible, every inch of them tanned, coltish, and prep school sleek. This girl is different. This girl is forgettable.
She speaks again. “You really okay?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
“It’s just, you seem, I don’t know, sort of strange.”
I nod and run a hand through my hair. I’m not wondering anything anymore. I don’t want to know what she’s thinking.
“I’m fine,” I mutter.
“So where’re you from? I don’t recognize your accent.”
My chest tightens, making it hard for me to breathe. Why, oh, why isn’t she leaving? She should, because I can be cold. I can be a lot of things. But she’s new, lonely. Maybe she thinks she’s found a kindred spirit. “Virginia,” I say finally. “But I’ve been going to school in New England since I was twelve, so my formative years have been spent here.”
Her jaw drops. “You’ve been in boarding school since you were twelve?”
“Don’t you miss your family?”
“No,” I say evenly. “I don’t.”
I stare at her. Hard. Her own accent rings strange to my ear, but you don’t see me asking where she’s from or what her family’s like. “So why were you spying on me?”
“I wasn’t spying!”
“No!” she says, and the red blossoming beneath her olive skin pleases me.
I did that.
But the girl keeps going. “I was—I’m supposed to be checking the snake traps and making sure there’re enough water chestnuts in the back pond for the ecology class. It’s part of my work-study hours. But it’s sort of scary out here after, you know, what happened.” She shudders. “Look, I heard a noise. It freaked me out, so I hid. Then I saw you and those guys.…”
Her head tilts back. The hazy afternoon sun slides from behind a cloud and strikes her eyes so that I can no longer look directly at her. I glance at my filthy leg instead.
“Aren’t you the guy who gets carsick?” she asks.
My shoulders twitch. “Excuse me?”
“On the bus, on the way to the Danby meet, last Wednesday. You had all sorts of patches and wristbands on. You looked like a mummy.”
“Like a mummy? Really? That’s charming. Thank you.”
More red blooms. A full bouquet. “I—I didn’t mean … well, couldn’t you just take medicine or something?”
No, I think.
“Why?” I ask.
“I don’t know. It just looked kind of ridiculous and like a lot of trouble—”
I cock an eyebrow at her. “I won, didn’t I?”
She sighs. I doubt she likes how this is going any more than I do. “Well, now you know why I was hiding in the bushes. What are you doing all the way out here?”
All the way. There’s a longing in her voice. Her brown-eyed gaze flicks across the snaking river. We’re a good mile from the covered bridge leading back to school grounds. Two miles from the row of white clapboard dorms.
She doesn’t trust me.
It’s better that way.
“I think you’ve got a handle on what I was doing,” I tell her. “Seeing as you were watching me and all.”
This helps. She puts her hands on those narrow hips, trying to look tough, and I know she’s pissed, but come on. The laws of nature don’t work like that. I’m a foot taller than her.
Among other things.
“Don’t worry,” she says. “It won’t happen again. You’re not that interesting.”
She stomps onto the trail a few yards away, small legs so close to breaking into a run. The need to flee is held captive in every muscle. But she gives me one more glance.
“Hey, Win?” she asks.
Don’t. Please don’t say my name. You have no idea who I really am.
“What’re you going to do now?”
“I was thinking about washing my leg off in the river.”
“What?” I ask.
“It’s like you don’t even care someone was killed out here.”
I do the shrug thing again because she’s right. It’s like I don’t care. But she’s also wrong, because I do.
Copyright © 2013 by Stephanie Kuehn
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Wow...this book FOLLOWED me when I wasn't reading it. Not literally, of course, but Win is the type of character that's so achingly real, I kept wanting to return to his story. When I finished late at night, I couldn't sleep because I was still thinking about Win. This book is unsettling and beautiful at the same time, and will probably find itself on my list of re-reads. I don't want to say too much about Charm & Strange and ruin all of the revelations for the reader, but don't miss this book .
4.5/5 Intense, unsettling, and unexpected. Read it in basically one sitting because I needed answers to so many questions. Definitely a powerful read.
Charm & Strange is a captivating tale that contains heavy and dark topics. The characters and relationships are unique, interesting, and complex, and many relationships don't end up where you might expect them to. This story brilliantly weaves the present and the past together by alternating chapters between them. POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD Win is a wonderfully complex character who hasn't been dealt a good hand in life. He lives in a boarding school in Vermont that his parents sent him too, and he spends his time there dealing with his many problems. He experienced many things as a child, especially the summer that he is eleven, that no child should have to experience. He's been through abuse at the hand of his father. He also has severe motion sickness, which causes problems for him on car trips. Because of something he did after a tennis match, he worries he could become like his dad. He fears the wolf inside of him. There are some relationships in this story that don't go the way you might expect them to. For example, when Win meets Jordan, I was expecting a romance to develop. I didn't realize she would end up dating a different guy by the end of the story. There are also some strange relationships when Win's family goes up to visit their cousins. There is a relationship between Win's older brother Keith, and one of the cousins, that seemed like it was a relationship that cousins shouldn't have. The way this story is told enables readers to get a full picture of Win, also known as Drew. You get to read about the past, and the present, and they alternate chapters. By reading his past, you see what events have shaped him into the boy he is today. It shows why he would be emotionally unstable. When you see what's happened to him, you understand him.
Cannot even describe this book (and it would probably be a disservice to try), but it was beautiful and incredible and so skilfully and confidently written that it actually weirds me out that it's a debut. So very deserving of its Morris Award.
This is a tale of 16 year old Win/Drew coming to terms with his inner wolf or past. Along the way, we, and eventually he, come to realize despite his attempts at thwarting friendship, he does have friends who will help him with his troubles. The story alternates between past and present frequently, which may be daunting for some readers/writers/formats; however, in this book, if flows quite fluidly. The characters and story and multi-layered. Emotional and scenic descriptions are lush and vivid. Overall an intense read.
Keuhn Expertly Conveys Ugly Circumstances Without the Ugly Graphic Details Maybe it’s because I have a darkness inside me, but I’ve been pleased to find books that deal with tough issues such as the ones found in Charm & Strange. Authors are becoming fearless and giving voice to everything from depression to abuse. I wish these books had been around when I was a teenager. They would have comforted me during times when I didn’t understand what was happening. A bevy of emotions followed me as I read Charm & Strange. The first few chapters instilled a fear of a hokey ending and I prepared myself to be disappointed. But as the story unfolded and clues began to worm their way into my mind a knot formed in my chest. Disgust and dismay strangled my heart and I couldn’t stop reading. I had to know the outcome and I wanted it to be positive because if it wasn’t my heart would continue to be squeezed. Stephanie Keuhn writes fluidly with no superfluous content. The story is paced in a manner that leaves you breathless and the major plot points fall like dominoes. The characters are three-dimensional. I could imagine myself talking with them, getting to know them outside the pages of the book. Drew/Win’s struggle is heartbreaking. Part of me wanted a hokey ending, because that would mean he hadn’t endured such pain and confusion. His battle is against an enemy he doesn’t understand and his strategies leave him vulnerable. Isolating himself isn’t just self-preservation, he truly believes he is protecting those around him. Although the crux of the story emerges from very ugly circumstances, Keuhn manages to convey that ugliness without becoming graphic. To me, that takes talent. And a lot of class. I loved this book and at the same time was disgusted by its morally revolting nucleus. I highly recommend it, but don’t pick it up thinking it will be a quick, light read. You’ll be blindsided and disillusioned if you do.