When you think back on your childhood, you probably remember the goofy stunts you pulled, the fun, the innocence, and the joy. If you were like me, you wanted to please your parents and your teachers, get good grades, and play with your friends. If you were anything like Kevin Killeen's main character, Patrick Cantwell, in his short novel Never Hug a Nun, you wanted these things but somehow, despite your best efforts, you frequently fell short.
Set in the 1960s in St. Louis, this novel has the feel of a memoir told in vignettes to it. When the story opens, Patrick is at the end of first grade at Mary Queen of Our Hearts Catholic School, the middle of three boys. He's the one who wants terribly to be good but he's so concerned with keeping up with his older brother John and showing his devotion to the beautiful, blonde Ebby Hamilton that he ignores his own conscience and gets himself into trouble more often than not. Peer pressure surely bites him in the butt every day of the week and twice on Sunday. Along with his brother John (but not younger brother Teddy, who has been a little more fragile since a bout with meningitis), and the neighborhood kid every parent wishes their child would steer clear of, Patrick gets up to all sorts of mischief, naughty antics and eventually even actual stealing that gets him arrested. They boys are smoking, jumping in front of freight trains, throwing tomatoes at buses, and dreaming up ways to get the money for a drum kit so they can start a band like the Beatles.
What starts out as a sweet novel about the innocence of childhood in a simpler time turns into snapshots from the life of a precocious, well-meaning deliquent of a child. Killeen has certainly captured the feel of parochial school, the changing Catholic church of the time, and the way in which the church was part of the very fabric of daily life for the devout very well. He's also done a lovely job with a childhood first crush, showing the embarrassment and the conflicting emotions that such a crush meant in elementary school. And his depiction of a father who goes downtown to work every day to support his family despite the monotonous boredom of his job and a mother who maintains the home because it is her expected sphere is spot on, especially for the mid '60s. The plot narrative here is very episodic and doesn't really have a discernible climax, rather it's simply one year in Patrick's life. As a character, Patrick seems to mean well but makes every poor decision in the book. And he also seems to be more of a deliquent than is normal or average for a 7 or 8 year old boy, even one growing up in a time when parents allowed their children to run free all day without today's stifling supervision. Killeen is clearly funny and there are moments that cause a chuckle in the book but there needs to be a bit more of a story to sustain the book. It's a quick, nostalgic read, especially for parochial school kids who have fond (or not so fond) memories of the nuns and priests and fellow Catholic school friends who peopled their childhoods.
For more information about Kevin Killeen and to read an excerpt of the book click here. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book. To buy the book, visit Blank Slate Press.
Thanks to Lisa from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.