Dyed Souls by Gary Santorella – Coming of age in 1980s America

“The soul is dyed by the thoughts”

It is difficult growing up anywhere, anytime. In Santorella’s minutely observed and dynamically written novel, it is nearly impossible for Charles. The expectations and behaviours in 1980s California were difficult to cope with for anyone who was different, and we discover that in certain ways, even among a challenging group of young people, Charles is very different as the novel begins. A tough but sometimes touching account of life in an ill assorted group as adolescence, abandonment and attitudes all make life difficult, and this novel is about the survival of the individual by acts of bravery. While the major players are young adults, this is a novel where everyone will recognise the troubles of growing up, and I was interested to receive a copy to read and review.

The book opens with Charles being returned to the Hawthorne Residential Treatment Village early from a weekend pass. As his mother drives him, the reader learns that she is not a loving and concerned parent, but has always been moving on, smoking heavily and drinking, having many ill advised relationships and probably earning money from prostitution. She has been inconsistent in her relationship with her only child, at one point leaving him with her parents for some time, then just as suddenly tearing him away. She flirts with Ted, one of the staff, not really explaining why she has brought Charles back early. He finds this painful, even shaming as it suggests that he is not wanted publicly. We discover that he is considered a loner, preferring to spend his time reading intellectual books and pondering the mysteries of life inspired by his grandfather. There is a conversation that is given verbatim when he and his grandfather discuss the origins of life, the possibility of God and look at the stars. Charles is an intelligent young man who has ended up in an institution for disturbed children and those with dysfunctional families, allocated carers who vary alarmingly in their attitudes, in a system which demands certain behaviour. Charles first person narrative reflects his struggles to come to terms with his lot; as he overhears what the staff think about him and the other young people, as he escapes at night for a few hours alone, as he uses his wit to bend the rules. He develops a relationships with others as he realises that he is not alone in suffering, but always with him is a desperate urge to return to his grandparents, to return to the only reliable home and relationship he has ever known.

This is a thoughtful and sometimes brutal novel as Charles struggles not only to survive, but discover his identity in a time and place which seems to oppose him. He works the system, striving to meet the demands of a world where he appears to be stuck indefinitely. He can be obsessive over such things as meals, but has flashes of inspiration and bravery. He feels a guilty responsibility regarding his mother, even while realising her choices have damaged him and effectively led her down a self destructive path. This is a brutally honest book about families and the lack of them, the damage people do to others and to themselves, and how survival is sometimes not straightforward. It is a painfully honest book of coming of age, asking deep questions about life and ultimately death, opening the reader’s eyes to the truth of a boy’s life.

Meanwhile, I made another visit to Barter Books. While I took some books to barter, I also had some money left in my account, so I was able to get some lovely books without spending much money. I ended up being there for a few hours, as Northernvicar had travelled on to Lindisfarne, but despite this I still didn’t get to study all the books on offer. A truly wonderful place!