Three years ago, Del made a mistake that changed the entire course of his teen years. Actually, it’ll change the entire course of his life, as he knows that even after he turns 18, what he did will haunt him. It’ll keep him from going to college and it’ll cement the job he has now as a grave digger as his career. It’s the only job he can get.
He’s only 17 now, but everything from here on out looks bleak.
Susan Vaught’s Going Underground starts with what seems like the most dire of stories, one that prepares readers for a journey into a dark world, and twists it completely. Del, who sounds like the kind of guy you’d want to lack sympathy for (because he’s a criminal), is one of the most likable characters I’ve read.
At the onset of the story, we meet Del when he’s 17 and making a living digging graves. He’s a loner, and his best friend is a gray parrot named Fred. And while the cards are stacked against him, and while he’s put to bed everything that happened when he was 14, these realities begin to catch up to him when he meets Livia, a girl new to town. She’s been spending time in the cemetery where he works, and Del can’t help but be drawn to her. Yet he knows deep down that making any advances, even so much as reaching out to talk to her, could come back to haunt him. But he takes the chance, and when he does, we’re tossed back into the fateful events that changed his life.
Though this book tackles the heavy issue of sexting, Vaught handles it masterfully by offering us Del. We’re given this sweet and often romantic male character (who, despite being such, has an authentic and believable male voice). As readers, we feel awful for whatever happened to him because it’s obvious he feels bad about it. He wants a future, and I think that’s sort of what spins him into such a likable character. Too often, miscreants don’t desire a lot for themselves; they make trouble so they can feel a part of life. Del, though, has so much he wants to accomplish and it was one mistake that turned his bright future into little more than a ditch.
What I think worked well in the unraveling of the crime is that it’s done carefully. It’s not An Issue, but rather, it was a series of typical events. Del and his former girlfriend were having fun, enjoying one another, and they made a mistake. One that involved what the law sees as child pornography and not innocent curiosity. Throughout it all, Del is left almost entirely out of the equation. He’s in trouble but he has no idea why. The thought never occurred to him. This is the pivotal moment: Del is a good kid. Del knows he’s a good kid. When he’s taken as a criminal, he has no idea why because he has done nothing wrong. As a reader, I not only felt bad for him but I agreed with him, and this is where Vaught turns on her writing skills.
Del committed a crime, but I questioned this the entire time I read. Did he deserve punishment for what he and his girlfriend thought was innocent fun? At what point does that natural human instant cross the line into criminal territory? As a reader, I found myself rationalizing both sides of the argument. Del received a lifetime — LIFETIME — punishment for one activity he didn’t even realize wasn’t legal. This good kid can never have a real job (because he’s a criminal) nor can he go to college (because he’s a criminal) nor can he expect to ever date again or find someone who’ll accept him as he is (because he’s a criminal). While he’s come to terms with the first two things, it’s that third thing that sets the story ablaze for both Del and the reader.
Livia herself has suffered a great loss, and Del senses it immediately. He wants to comfort her and yet he doesn’t know how. I’m not usually a big root-for-the-romance-to-happen reader, but I could not help myself. I wanted something good to happen for Del and subsequently, for Livia. Even as I wrestled with the consequences of his actions, at the core of it all is a kid who made an innocent mistake that not impacts every single aspect of his life. I was never rooting for a bad guy. I was rooting for a good guy, a really good guy who downright deserved to succeed.
Going Underground has a cast of fully-fleshed characters amid the well-drawn legal issues. This is important because one never undermines the other in the story, and by navigating both successfully, there is a lot to dig into. This is not an easy read, but it shouldn’t be. There aren’t any cut-and-dry answers, and even at the story’s (satisfying) conclusion, things don’t wrap themselves up in a pretty little bow. There are more questions to consider and more consequences to ponder. I think this would make a spectacular book discussion title, though it has wide appeal to contemporary fiction fans. There is definite cross-over appeal for adults in this, too, particularly as it explores the ideas of sexting and the life long ramifications therein. Although they tread different territory, I think fans of Matthew Quick’s Sorta Like a Rockstar will find themselves falling for Del in the same way they fell for Amber Appleton and the challenge to the story itself will leave them satisfied. In addition, reading this one in conversation with Sarah Darer Littman’s Want to Go Private? seems natural; fans of that title should pick this one up as well.
Advanced reader copy received from the publisher.
Kelly Jensen is a former librarian turned editor for Book Riot. She's the author of IT HAPPENS: A Guide to Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader and the forthcoming Feminism For The Real World (Algonquin Young Readers, Spring 2017).