There is something suffocating about Samsboro, Kentucky, the setting of Leah Thomas’ riveting Wild and Crooked. This might be a fact of life in a small-town, where everyone knows one another’s business and old secrets have a way of resurfacing at the worst of times. But Samsboro has never fully escaped the shroud left by a terrible crime that rocked the town nearly two decades earlier. And while the community can’t seem to shake this terrible murder, they also refuse to face it, leaving Samsboro a powder keg primed and ready to blow.
Of course, this affects different people in different ways. Though Kalyn Spence has only recently moved to Samsboro, she is already desperate for refuge from the claustrophobic, insular town. But Kalyn can’t run from her name. It’s her Spence blood, she figures, that makes her allergic to rules, fuels her impulsive anger, and keeps her friendless. It’s also the Spence name that brands her as “trailer trash,” and as the daughter of the man who killed the town’s golden boy. Though her father has never denied committing this crime, Kalyn is convinced that he is not nearly as monstrous as the town paints him. But she also knows that the Spence name will haunt her as long as she bears it in Samsboro. So when she begins school, she tries on a new name and a new persona and though the fit is imperfect, she can’t argue with the results – in place of dirty looks and cruel whispers, she finds popularity and acceptance.
Gus Peake has his own small-town problems. He has a lot to offer, from his wry wit and eclectic fashion sense to his kindness and compassion. Yet when the people of Samsboro look at him they only see two things: 1) Gus is disabled – he has Cerebral Palsy, which has affected his physical abilities as well as his speech and 2) Gus is the son of the aforementioned golden boy, who was murdered before Gus was even born. Because of these two facts, most people pity Gus instead of appreciating the many things he has to offer. And then he meets Rose Poplawski, a new girl at school who puts up a phony front, but also seems to see the real Gus and recognize his value.
Of course, there is a small problem. Rose Poplawski is really Kalyn Spence and her father killed Gus’s father. This fact should be the wedge that ends their friendship. But Kalyn and Gus are equally frustrated by the people around them and are both determined to find out what really happened between their fathers, even if it means tearing the town apart to uncover the truth.
As a compelling story of friendship and an enjoyable mystery, The Wild and Crooked is surely a success. I tore through this book and while the resolution didn’t contain any bombshell revelations, it had enough minor twists to remain satisfying. It was a pleasure to switch back and forth between Gus and Kalyn’s voices. They are both lovingly developed and fully formed characters and it was a joy to watch their friendship develop. In many ways, it was refreshing to read a book that hit many of the beats of a romance but focused instead on platonic love. I also appreciate the LGBTQ+ representation in this novel. Even in a small town with plenty of prejudice, we see queer teens, queer adults, and identities that extent beyond the gay/straight binary (albeit subtly).
And yet, I find myself conflicted about this novel as a whole. I’m frustrated by the lack of diverse racial and ethnic representation among not just the main characters in this novel, but really all of those that participate in the book’s main plot lines. While Thomas created an interesting and complicated community, it is also an overwhelmingly white community and I am disappointed that she missed the opportunity to discuss the ways racial prejudice might manifest in such a town.
I am also uncomfortable with the portrayal of Gus’s best friend, Phil. Phil is not as central a character as Kalyn or Gus, but his actions often drive the plot of the novel. It seems that Thomas went back and forth on how to characterize Phil. Early in the book, she hinted that he might be on the autism spectrum, before establishing that he was “tested…and fell short of the spectrum.” And yet, Thomas gave Phil some of the behaviors that are often negatively and falsely ascribed to people on the spectrum, including a lack of emotions and physically violent outbursts. I was disappointed that she would even passingly connect neurodiversity and these harmful stereotypes. Eventually, Thomas revealed that Phil has antisocial personality disorder, but the explanation for his social struggles and the suggested trauma that causes them to feel vague and unscientific.
Wild and Crooked was great fun, with moments that provoked thought and encouraged self-reflection. It was also deeply frustrating, with moments that missed the mark and made me uncomfortable in the wrong ways. It all left me wondering – would I recommend this book to a reader? I think I would, but only when I have the time or space to voice my concerns.