Bull doesn’t let up on Victor. As his name might suggest, Bull is the bully here and Victor is his target. It’s been this way since elementary school: Bull lets out his aggression and Victor lets him. Doesn’t fight back. Although KM Walton’s debut Cracked sounds like a standard story of bullying, readers learn there is a lot more going on beneath the surfaces of both boys. That both Bull and Victor are the bully and the bullied in their own ways.
Bull comes from a poor family, with parents who are angry and abusive toward him. When I say he’s poor, I mean, he’s poor. Unlike many books that try to portray poor characters through simply calling them poor (something which bothers me to no end), Walton actually depicts a boy who is growing up in a lower income bracket. I don’t know if I’d characterize him as living in poverty, but his home is infested with insects, there is hardly any food at home for him, and he really has nothing. All of this, along with his award-winning parents who regularly remind him that he was an unwanted child, cause him to seek out a way to feel better about himself. From very early on in his life, Victor was an easy target. Everything that Bull has pent up from home he lets loose on Victor who, rather than fight back, takes it. Because of this, Bull continues being a bully because, well, it helps him feel like he has some sort of power and control in his life.
Victor is almost the complete opposite of Bull — or at least, that’s what we’re lead to believe about him. Victor comes from a home where there is money. Both of his parents work hard and he lives in a big house and has everything he could possibly want at his fingertips. Of course, that’s all superficial; his parents are never home and his parents aren’t happy he exists at all. He’s a burden to them. Victor’s lonely and frustrated and while he never wants to be the victim of bullying, it offers him a kind of attention he’s not getting anywhere else. There’s not a suggestion bullying is good for him because it’s not, but as readers, it’s easy to see why he doesn’t fight back. Aside from being afraid, of course, it’s just part of the reality he’s accepted and it feels like something he thinks he deserves, given everything else in his life. There is one good thing in Victor’s life, though, is his mother’s dog Jazzer. But Jazz is really old and, well, I won’t spoil what happens, even though it’s obvious.
Cracked is written from the perspective of both boys, with alternating chapters. In setting up the story this way, Walton shows us that despite the external differences between Bull and Victor, they’re actually very similar. They’re both hurting and aching, and they’re both seeking some sort of validation that their lives are worth something because neither feels like it is. In fact, both boys are so down on their lives that they each end up attempting suicide — even if it’s not through the same means or with the same goals in mind (one is much more direct in his attempt while the other goes about it as a way to protect himself from other harm). When the boys wake up from their hospital treatment, they find themselves in the same room. In the same psych ward. And now, they have to face one another and face their own demons at the same time.
While both boys are now forced together in space and in time, they do a great job of avoiding talking to one another, even when they’re in the same group therapy session. Bull has physical injuries that limit his mobility, and Victor, well, he just hides. Although they do eventually talk and find out the things about one another that we as readers figured out long before, I had a little trouble with the believability here. The therapy/recovery period is very short — four days — and in that time, both boys seem to make pretty hard turnarounds. Moreover, and maybe the only real troubling part for me as a reader, is that both boys in the story are “saved” by girls they meet in therapy. The message here about love and sharing love is excellent, and it’s what the boys both needed; however, the place from which it’s coming — others who were in the same short treatment/therapy group — didn’t work for me. I didn’t quite buy that those girls had themselves gained as much wisdom as they did from such a short recovery period (given they, too, were assumed to be in this psych ward because they, too, had hit rock bottom like Bull and Victor). I hoped for a little more between Victor and Bull, too. The girls almost got in the way of that.
What I did like, though, was another character who shows up and supports Bull in a way he wasn’t expecting. There was another person looking out for him for a long time, and when he realizes who it was, his outlook on life changes a lot. The same could be said for Victor, who has a family member step in and offer him the sort of love he was missing out on from his parents (who, I should note, went on a European vacation and when they heard Victor had tried to kill himself, continued their trip anyway). Although this felt almost a little too happy-ending, particularly when it came to Bull’s after-care recovery needs, because I wanted a good ending for both of these boys, I accepted it.
Cracked is fast-paced, and both boys have great, believable voices. The alternating perspectives work here, and Walton offers up two distinct characters. Even though a lot of their personalities shine through their differences in class and in experience, internally, they’re struggling with their own problems in a way that makes them individuals. Walton’s novel came out earlier this year and didn’t get a whole lot of attention, but I think it’s one that deserves a lot more. It doesn’t necessarily tread anywhere entirely new, but what it does cover is well-written and engaging and will be a great read alike to a number of other strong contemporary titles (and more stories with authentic male voices never hurt). I was reminded quite a bit of Swati Avasthi’s Split, as well as Andrew Smith’s Stick. I also think fans of Amy Reed’s books — particularly Clean and her forthcoming Crazy, both of which depict teens struggling with recovery and with pain and mental illness — will want to check this one out. Walton’s debut impressed me, and I’m really looking forward to her sophomore effort, Empty (January 2013), which also explores bullying.
Finished copy purchased for me from Lenore. Cracked is available now.
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).