Some aspects of Surrender Your Sons felt deeply real and intimate, but I couldn't get past the challenges of details, character behavior, and leaps in logic that didn't seem to fit.
The heart of this book is lovely: Connor is a young man figuring out who he is; he feels afraid of the consequences of coming out; he's looking for love; and he's discovering inner bravery and emotional vulnerability, which will allow him to live honestly and fully.
Connor's SAT scores stink, his best friend is pregnant and everyone seems to think he's the father of the baby, he's trying to find his way in his first relationship, and he came out to his homophobic mom, so now he's grounded. But things are going to get much worse: he's about to be kidnapped and taken out of the country to Nightlight, a secret conversion camp for homosexual minors, because of his mother's rigid religious beliefs and her blind faith in the Reverend and his thinking.
Adam Sass's beautifully heartfelt Acknowledgments mention that the essence of his story remained intact through years and "a million" versions (including a fantasy version--which I'm intrigued by--as well as one set in England and other versions geared toward adult audiences) before he landed on a young adult approach. It seems as though Sass feels deeply about the character of Connor. And I wanted to dive into this story. But I was challenged by frequent issues with story elements, tone shifts and uneven pacing, and character choices that didn't seem to fit. These ranged from details that didn't mesh to what felt like large, irrational leaps in logic, sometimes within the same paragraph.
Why would Ricky send a cryptic, desperate, last-minute warning but not have tried to communicate anything to Connor in months of exchanges? (We see Ricky recognize the Reverend's likely intent of spiriting off Connor to Nightlight at the diner when Ricky and Connor first meet.) Why would the Reverend actively put Connor and Ricky together at all, if Ricky has made the life choices he has (which are presented as abhorrent to the Reverend)--but even more importantly, why would he link them if Ricky clearly has dangerous knowledge of Nightlight and the troublesome goings-on that occurred in his life after his own stint there? The Reverend is ready to literally kill in order to preserve the details of that information from becoming known.
Minor things stopped me so often that I stopped making note of them, but a few issues that didn't feel like they worked, even within the disturbingly irrational setting: Why would the kids be made to shower with carefully hoarded rainwater and immediately afterward go on a long forced run? Why would they hold their hands over their hearts (as though saying the Pledge of Allegiance) during a sung blessing? Connor is able to keep a thick, bulky Playbill folded and hidden in the pocket of his short shorts at breakfast? In a life-and-death moment, the kids laugh and try to insult the woman who is threatening them and possibly about kill them? And the repeated use of I instead of me is a copyediting-level issue, but it stopped me every time I saw it.
Connor's grasp of his mother’s involvement in shipping him off seems confused to an unlikely extent. Could he realistically have the emotional ability that we're told he possesses immediately after his kidnapping to anticipate that he and his mom (who sanctioned and paid for this kidnapping to another country and the ensuing brutal attempts at scrubbing his homosexuality) would eventually be close again, so that he would want to hurry and get home to her to bandage their relationship? He’s a teen with the potential for having a temper, and I would expect some measure of rage from anyone at the injustice of his situation, the time she's robbing him of (he is expected to stay for months), and her horrifying neglect—she has no idea what these people might do to him and has placed him in grave danger. It would be easy to imagine that as a kidnapped teen who has demonstrated a rebellious streak and an increasingly strong sense of self, he might imagine in these moments that he is through with her--even if he might feel compassion for her ignorance later, and even if it's more difficult to cut the cord on their relationship when (if) he returns.
Some aspects of Surrender Your Sons feel deeply real and intimate: the fumbling scenes with Ario, the growing affection for Marcos, the other friendships powerfully forged during trauma and danger, and the ultimate emergence of the Nightlight BBs as wonderfully flamboyant characters living true lives. But I couldn't get past the confusing elements.
What did you think?
I received a prepublication copy of Surrender Your Sons through NetGalley and Flux.
I mentioned this book and its captivating premise in Three Wackily Different Books I'm Reading Right Now, 9/12/20 Edition.