‘Leopard’ by Wells Tower

Leopard by Wells Tower, 2008

The magic trick:

Creating an 11-year-old protagonist who is immature and irrational but also correct in his assessments of the world

This is a story about an 11-year-old boy who’s contending with the tried-and-true dual conflict of growing up and the evil stepfather. Obviously, that’s not the most original promise for a story, but this one feels unique. The writing is sharp, and everything is just a little bit askew – enough to make you feel like you’re in a new and uncomfortable situation.

The story is told in the second-person, putting the reader in the boy’s point of view. It does a really nice job of combining the weird and the sympathetic. The boy’s kind of weird. He’s 11 years old, taking in the world with a mix of ignorance, fear, and desire. He’s insecure, and he’s frustrated. That’s a lot of things that you of course probably remember about being 11 years old. So he acts a little bit on edge and does some weird stuff in the story.

But what’s cool is that the context, all the things going on around him in the story, they’re always working to keep the reader sympathetic to his point of view. Yes, he’s maybe thinking and acting in extreme ways or immature ways. But you know what? His stepdad is kind of a jerk. And the police officer is kind of hokey.

So even while we see him as immature, we also pretty much think he’s right most of the story. We sympathize with him and support his assessments. So that’s an interesting combination – for the reader to be thinking of him condescendingly but also as someone who is spot on with most of feelings and judgments about the world. That creates a really interesting combination of feelings for the reader.

And that’s quite a trick on Tower’s part.

The selection:

It is nearly one o’clock, the hour that your mother comes home for lunch. You do not want to be alone in the house with your stepfather. It still angers you that he has sent you down the driveway on your sick day, your special day of rest. You take a dozen steps, and then a plan suggests itself. Very carefully, you litter the mail in a haphazard fan on the driveway gravel so that it looks as though it were dumped there suddenly. You ease yourself down into a tire rut, splaying your arms and legs in the attitude of someone stricken by a fainting spell. When your mother’s car swings into the drive, she will find you there. She may have to stand on the brakes to keep from running you over, but you are far enough up the driveway that you don’t think she could hit you by mistake. She’ll come to you crying and concerned. You’ll let her coax it out of you, the story of how your stepfather made you get the mail.


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