1941. Steven Katz is the son of prosperous landowners in rural California. Although his parents don’t approve, he’s found true friends in Nick, Suki, and Ollie, sons of field workers. The group is inseparable. But Steven is in turmoil. He’s beginning to acknowledge that his feelings for Nick amount to more than friendship.
When the bombing of Pearl Harbor draws the US into World War II, Suki and his family are forced to leave their home for the internment camp at Manzanar. Ollie enlists in the army and ships out. And Nick must flee. Betrayed by his own father and accused of a crime he didn’t commit, he turns to Steven for help. Hiding Nick in a root cellar on his family’s farm, Steven acts as Nick’s protector and lifeline to the outside world.
As the war escalates, bonds deepen and the fear of being different falls away. But after Nick unexpectedly disappears one day, Steven’s life focus is to find him. On the way, Steven finds a place he belongs and a lesson about love that will last him his lifetime.
Steven is kind, sweet, and balances naivety and maturity beautifully. He avoids confronting his family but never betrays his beliefs, his friends, or himself. Steven manages to be vulnerable with others and strong for himself, which can be incredibly difficult. Even more impressively, he does this while going against popular opinion in his very small town. I love the connection he forms with people who others have turned against – not because he’s trying to protect them or prove something, but because he doesn’t allow the prejudice of others to alter his perception of the world.
Even though Boy Underground is told only from Steven’s perspective, the other characters are still complex, interesting people. It was also refreshing that while Steven is perceptive and empathetic, he isn’t magically capable of telepathy, so his insight into others is believable. In addition, his realistic understanding of the other people around him made the narrative feel honest and possible. Another refreshing change is that instead of instalove, we get authentic teenage crushes that change and develop naturally.
Boy Underground is a very touching story about a difficult and complicated time in history, and a lot of complex topics are addressed in an honest and unflinching manner. Steven often feels too good to be true, but that’s mostly because it’s hard to comprehend his ability to maintain his perspective while living in this small town, especially while growing up with the type of family he has. I appreciated the story told here, and the direction it took was surprising, unique, and undoubtedly unpredictable at times. Both heartbreaking and heartwarming, I’d definitely recommend a read.