Todd Strasser’s topical novel Give a Boy a Gun tackles a difficult and potentially divisive topic with a great deal of care and concern for all parties involved. As both a mother and a teacher, I found the book horrifying and troubling. Canada doesn’t have a gun culture per se. Sure, we own guns, but rifles for hunting mostly. In fact, “there are just two categories of individuals who are allowed an authorization to carry [handguns]: those who require one because of their occupations and those who need one for the “protection of life.” They need to get an authorization from the chief firearms officer for their province or territory. (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/who-may-carry-handguns-in-canada-1.1135084)
Strasser’s story is framed as an investigation by Journalism student, Denise Shipley. She hears about the death of Gary Searle in the gymnasium of Middletown High, her alma mater, and she heads home to investigate. She says, “I spoke to everyone who would speak to me. In addition I studied everything I could find on the many similar incidents that occurred in other schools around our country in the past thirty years.” The story of Middletown is fiction, but the notes found at the bottom of many of the pages, are not. The facts and figures lend an air of authenticity to the story Denise discovers about Gary.
As classmates, teachers, parents and bystanders weigh in, a horrible picture begins to emerge of a student who is bullied and who finds a friend in another outsider, Brendan Lawlor. Brendan’s best friend Brett describes him as “smart and funny and a pretty good athlete.” While Brendan lived in Springfield he was ” a really cool kid. Popular too.” But things change when he moves with his parents to Middletown and he starts high school.
I am not so naïve as to think that there isn’t a pecking order in high school. I would like to believe that at the high school where I teach (on the East coast of Canada) it is not quite so pronounced as the school Brendan and Gary attend. There, they are openly picked on and the teachers and administration ignore it.
Brendan and Gary got picked on. That’s a fact. We all did. Little guys; fat guys; skinny, gangly, zit-riddled guys like me. Anyone who wasn’t big and strong and on a team got it. You’d even see big guys on the football team push around some of the smaller players. Middletown High is big and crowded, and you’ve got ten dillion kids in the hall at once. Maybe if it’s an all-out, knock-down-drag-out fight, some teacher will notice and try to stop it. But if it’s just some big jerk shoving you into a locker, who’s gonna see?
I believe we work very hard (with more success than failure) to cultivate an atmosphere of acceptance here, but it doesn’t take very long for the reader to see how the daily abuse that comes from being perceived as “different” affects Brendan and Gary. The novel clips along to its inevitable conclusion and although it makes for grim reading, I also think it’s an important topic and one that would certainly generate lively discussion.