Two gay men struggling against prejudices in the rural West may conjure images from Brokeback Mountain, but this novel has less to do with unconventional romance than a teenager dealing with unwelcome changes. Bitter about the dissolution of his "normal" family after his father came out three years ago (an announcement that made his mother leave for good), 17-year-old Ben dreads moving from Spokane, Wash., to rural Montana, where his father's partner, Edward, grew up. Starting over in a small town "where gay dudes and their boyfriends don't go over well" looks impossible to Ben. Tracking Ben's transformation from rebellious city boy to hard-working cowboy, Harmon (Skate) digs beneath the stereotypes of gays and rednecks to tackle issues emerging when conservative and liberal values clash. Some of Ben's prejudices about the West prove to be true: Miss Mae, Edward's mother, makes Ben live in the woodshed until he starts obeying her; the Pentecostal next-door neighbor believes Ben's family is going to hell. But Miss Mae has surprising complexities to her character, and Ben, itching to save the neighbor's son from obvious abuse and what seems to be local indifference, has a lot to learn about appearances. Harmon coaxes readers past some far-fetched plotting (Ben saves lives and rockets to hero status) with skillful, often witty insights into human nature; because his take on people is convincing, audiences will want to believe in his story, too. Ages 14-up. (Mar.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
AGERANGE: Ages 12 to adult.
Harmon is the author of Skate, a highly praised first novel. In The Last Exit to Normal, the narrator is Ben, an angry young man. Most of his anger has been caused by what he sees as his father’s lies and betrayal. His father was married and fathered Ben, but a few years before this story begins, Ben learned that his father is gay and that his real love is another man. This dissolved the family and caused Ben to go on a tear. In an effort to rein Ben in, his father and Ed, the boyfriend, go to a small town in Montana, and live with Ed’s elderly mother. Harmon brings all his skill to this situation, with each character so well realized, so quirky, so individual. Ed’s mother is a terror, and yet as her personality is revealed, we understand how very complicated and how honorable she is. Ben eventually is transformed by this culture shock, and by a beautiful girl who makes him want to be a better person. A subplot involves a truly disastrous father-son situation next door where an 11-year-old boy is being physically and emotionally abused. This is the first time in quite a while that Ben feels some compassion for someone other than himself, and his rage is directed at someone other than his own father. This metamorphosis takes place slowly over the weeks in the summer heat, and the reader feels every bit of the heat. An excellent story. Reviewer: Claire Rosser
March 2008 (Vol. 42, No.2)
Gr 9 Up- Since his father came out and his mother took off, Ben Campbell has been in trouble, smoking pot, getting arrested-the usual array of angry bad-boy behavior. In an effort to put him on the right path, his dad and his dad's partner, Edward, decide to move the family from Spokane to Edward's hometown in Montana. Rough Butte, population 463, is full of farmers, ranchers, and Miss Mae, Edward's tough country mama. Ben is out of his element in the extreme, and has a hard time adjusting until he meets Kimberly Johan, a neighbor who steals his heart and makes him want to be a part of Big Sky country. Although the novel wraps up a little too neatly, it is filled with atypical character interactions that make it an excellent read. Ben's anger at his father for destroying their original family and failing to be a "regular" dad is potent and raw, as is his language. His father's fear that Ben is becoming homophobic turns to paranoia and mistrust, and the two nearly part ways permanently. Ben also struggles with the differences between what he sees as child abuse and what most of the Montanans consider simple discipline as he befriends his young neighbor, who is in desperate need of someone's help. And, finally, Ben must conquer the town's teen villain who has an unhealthy obsession with Kimberly and a penchant for arson. It may sound like a lot of plot for one book, and it is, but Harmon makes it work with believable characters, Ben's biting wit, and solid lessons about acceptance and responsibility.-Nora G. Murphy, Los Angeles Academy Middle School
Spiky-haired skater Ben Campbell moves with his gay dads to rural Montana, where he finds animal carcasses, trucks, a cute farm girl and a troubled kid next door. Readers will love watching this hilarious teen grapple with his new digs, delinquent tendencies and irrepressible sarcasm. Miss Mae, Ben's grisly Grandma, serves as a fantastic, country-fried foil to Ben's snarky cynicism. Quick, unfiltered dialogue generates great moments of witty banter, but also captures darker explosions of rage between father and son. Ben still resents his dad's decision to honor his sexuality and come out, even if it meant dismantling their family. Fortunately, this is not an evil stepfather story. Harmon constructs a much more interesting scenario, in which Ben actually likes his father's partner, Edward. Teen readers will realize that anger isn't usually rational and identify with Ben's lingering frustration. They will also realize that Ben is a benevolent guy-one who rescues a man from under a tractor and tries to save a boy from an abusive home. Predictably, Ben comes to like Montana, but this story takes funny twists and poignant turns through the backwoods. (Fiction. YA)
Starred Review, Publishers Weekly, February 18, 2008:
"Because [Harmon's] take on people is convincing, audiences will want to believe in his story, too."
Starred Review, School Library Journal, April 2008:
"It is filled with atypical character interactions that make it an excellent read."