Sunday, August 15, 2010

Lean On Pete

15 year-old Charley Thompson is a heartbreaker of a protagonist.  He and his Dad move to Portland, Oregon, where he is left to fend for himself while his Dad works, parties, and sleeps around.  Shoplifting food and scrambling for money is second-nature to Charley at this point, although he is a fundamentally good, kindhearted teen who loves to run and longs to return to Spokane so he can play on the football team again.  Neglect and disregard turn to danger when his Dad sleeps with the wrong married woman.  Her husband decides to even the score with drastic consequences for his Dad and Charley. 

Charley is a survivor and manages to find work at the local racetrack, helping the casually cruel, repulsive alcoholic Del with his horses. Sometimes Del pays him, sometimes he pays him less than he promised, and sometimes he doesn’t pay him at all.  A desperate Charley rarely asks for what he earned, what he literally needs to survive.  He’s grateful to be remembered, to stay afloat and off the radar of Child and Family Services.  Charley is almost animal-like in his ability to survive being literally and figuratively kicked, coming back to give his Dad, Del, or others who mistreat him a second chance to be as good as he is.  But he doesn’t have to worry or flinch when he is with Del’s horses and he develops a special bond with Lean on Pete, an aging racehorse who is kicked and abused himself.  As Charley’s desperation grows, he ends up living in Lean on Pete’s stall at the horse track.  Throughout horror after horror, Charley remembers good times he had with his Dad and reflects continually on his beloved librarian Aunt Margy, who took loved him and took an interest in him before she had a falling out with his Dad and they lost contact a few years before.

Del’s plan to sell Lean on Pete is the impetus that induces Charley to steal his beloved horse and set out on an arduous journey to save the horse and find his aunt in Wyoming.  With nothing left to lose Charley and Lean on Pete drive, ride, and walk, all in hopes of finding the one person who was ever steady and good.  Charley experiences small acts of kindness along that way and his gratitude is heartbreaking.  He also continues to encounter those same type of people who have always preyed on his vulnerability and general kindness.  

Lean on Pete is such an unusual, melancholy story of a boy and a horse.  Charley’s unrelenting, gentle spirit, even in the face of chaos and violence is inspiring and a testament to nature versus nurture. He refuses to stop looking for love, even if it comes in the form of a broken down horse named Lean on Pete.  Readers will appreciate the devotion Charley feels for the increasingly lame Lean on Pete. They will also be moved by the people and situations Charley has to endure and admire his gentle, indomitable spirit.  Life is emphatically not fair for Charley and even the most jaded readers will be angry and outraged on his behalf and cheer him on as he and Lean on Pete try to make their way toward Aunt Margy and the possibility of a better life.

Be sure to take a look at author Willy Vlautin's music playlist via Largehearted Boy.

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