In Smith’s tense, haunting debut novel, expanded from his noted short story in One Story, the year is 1988 in Leavenworth, Kan., a nexus of four prisons, where we meet two brothers, nine and 11, whose parents have recently split. The boys move with their mother into an apartment complex, where they become obsessed with its swimming pool. Their father is a police officer who is busy trying to track down a killer who has just escaped from Leavenworth Prison, which sets off a panic in the community. Left to their own devices at the pool, the boys meet Chris, a charismatic stranger, and fall under his spell. Their harried mother is so distracted by money problems and her sleazy boy friend, Rick, who manages the golf course where she works, that she is unaware of her sons’ secret friend and his growing influence over them, especially the older one. Once Chris’s true nature is revealed, readers will be reminded of The Night of the Hunter for its depiction of two youthful innocents forced to confront implacable evil. Smith has his story narrated by the younger brother, who at times seems to have a too-mature grasp of all the bad adult behavior surrounding him. Although the premise is a little convenient and the narrative sometimes feels padded, the author compensates with razor-sharp characterizations, a richly evoked period setting, and the sense of a community forever living in the shadow of fear. Agent: Claudia Ballard, WME Entertainment. (Mar.)
"[A] very special first novel . . . Writing with extraordinary grace and tenderness, Smith injects unnerving tension into a delicate coming-of-age story set squarely in the path of a tornado."
—Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review
“A violent debut told with startling intimacy . . . [Hurt People] is the strangest breed of page-turner, one that’s plotted like a thriller but plays like a hymn.”
—Liz Cook, The Kansas City Star
“A beautifully written story about brotherly love and the loss of innocence. Smith crafts a compelling narrative from the point of view of a nine-year-old that never waivers all the way through the gripping conclusion.”
—Anders Carlson, The Rumpus
"[In Hurt People] Smith does a remarkably convincing job of showing a vulnerable eight-year-old trying to make sense of the confounding world of adults."
—Mary Ellen Quinn, Booklist
"[Smith writes] razor-sharp characterizations, a richly evoked period setting, and the sense of a community forever living in the shadow of fear."
"A debut novel with red herrings steeped in mind-numbing heat and bone-chilling darkness deep in the modern American prairie . . . This first novel represents an expansion of a short story by Smith (who grew up in Leavenworth), and at times, it seems to strain from the added development. But Smith's spare, taut prose, along with the empathy he brings even to characters neither you nor the boys like much, compensates for such lapses, as does a flair for raw, gut-clutching menace shared by masters of rural American gothic."
“Set against the backdrop of Leavenworth’s prison-industrial complex, Cote Smith’s debut novel bravely reveals that home is where the hurt is. But thanks to the graces threaded throughout Hurt People, Smith soothes the ache and reminds us that family isn’t just a thing we inhabit—family is a thing we do.”
—Smith Henderson, author of Fourth of July Creek
“In Hurt People, Cote Smith introduces one of the most memorable young narrators I have encountered in years, his voice charming, wise, and heartbreaking. Through his eyes, we watch as Leavenworth, Kansas, heats up one summer, aflame with danger and sorrow and disappearing innocence. Smith’s language is beautifully, terrifyingly simple, his view at once stark and compassionate. Hurt People belongs to an exciting new type of coming-of-age story, clear about the way the world works but acknowledging our need to remain hopeful anyway.”
—Lori Ostlund, author of After the Parade
"Cote Smith writes characters that are beautifully, viciously alive. Hurt People is the supremely rare kind of novel that will crawl inside your heart and live there forever."
—Laura van den Berg, author of Find Me and The Isle of Youth
"I do not want to imagine a world where I did not spend all Sunday lying in bed tearing through this book. It was beautiful outside, autumn beckoned, but all I wanted to do was turn the pages of this beautifully written psychological thriller and root for these characters, who may be hurt but are not broken."
—Deb Olin Unferth, author of Vacation
"Cote Smith's Hurt People is a jackknife of a novel: it's sharp and it plunges deep. The book beautifully captures the menacing atmosphere of a prison town and the intense bond between two brothers."
—Elliott Holt, author of You Are One of Them
"At the center of Hurt People, a young boy grows up in the shadow of four prisons and his malcontent older brother. When his unquestioning loyalty is challenged, he is forced through a one way gate to the adult world of secrets. Quiet and moving, Hurt People is a scorching meditation on how childhood can be in Leavenworth, where irresponsible adults, poverty, and dark intentions threaten a young boy's innocence at every turn."
—Marie Helene Bertino, author of 2 A.M. at The Cat's Pajamas
A debut novel with red herrings steeped in mind-numbing heat and bone-chilling darkness deep in the modern American prairie. Prisons are the major industry in Leavenworth, Kansas, and business is booming in the summer of 1988—even if maintaining those prisons apparently means the city can't afford to build a new public library. Meanwhile, there's an escaped prisoner on the loose—a fact that two young boys, sons of a local policeman, are trying hard to ignore as they live from one hot day to the next, swimming and diving in the pool at their divorced mom's apartment complex. Yet the brothers invent a name for the escapee, "The Stranger," and he becomes part of the fantasy world they invent to escape a dreary reality comprising a father who's less than sure of his own law enforcing capabilities either at home or on the streets and a mother haplessly engaged in a romance with a sleazy ex-con who works at the same golf course pro shop she does. Prominent among the other bigger people in the brothers' lives is Chris, who one days materializes at the pool; for all his amiable coaching of the boys' diving techniques, he seems as enigmatic to the younger brother as he is engaging to the older one. As the summer drags on (and as, intermittently, the novel does), the humid atmosphere around the brothers' world becomes freighted with ominous portents: the search for "The Stranger" stalls, the threat of tornadoes increases, both parents become more depressed, and the older brother becomes more violent and temperamental, imperiling the strong bond he has with his younger sibling. This first novel represents an expansion of a short story by Smith (who grew up in Leavenworth), and at times, it seems to strain from the added development. But Smith's spare, taut prose, along with the empathy he brings even to characters neither you nor the boys like much, compensates for such lapses, as does a flair for raw, gut-clutching menace shared by masters of rural American gothic. Smith's not in their company yet. But, in time, he could be. Through every sad, ugly twist of this story, you feel yourself wanting to turn away, but you can't.