Although dominated by two story lines loosely tied together, Gentlehands has one major theme—intolerance. The intolerance of Frank Trenker led him to murder Jewish concentration camp inmates, and the misunderstanding of both Skye and Buddy’s family for members of a different social class lead only to insensitive comments and bickering. Both issues make the book an important one. It teaches a vital lesson to be learned in youth: Without knowledge and a sense of equality, communication is lost and ill-will is bred.
Out of this need for tolerance also springs an awareness of the need for respect and honesty. Buddy feels deceived by his grandfather, but, at the same time, he is deceiving and neglectful of his family. His awareness of this hypocrisy, as well as his newfound desire for familial closeness, leads him to the maturity that he lacks at the beginning of the book, when his only concerns seem to be spending time with Skye and his great awe of the differences in wealth that he encounters at both her home and the home of his grandfather.
Perhaps the greatest lesson of the novel, however, is an unexpected one. Early adolescence is often a time of seeing the world in either black or white, without an acceptance of the shades of gray that color the majority of life experiences and encounters. When Buddy sees his grandfather as both Gentlehands and the gentle man with whom he has spent time, Buddy begins to come of age. Evidence is shown that Buddy has indeed recognized some of the subtleties of this transformation when he says to Skye, as she is finally about to meet Buddy’s true family and is concerned with her appearance, “You look fine. No one else will be all in blue.” Further, he arrives at the costume party in the final scene wearing a question mark, as if he has accepted himself for what he is—a young man still in search of himself.
Although published after Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War (1974), a book which began a trend in young adult fiction toward more harshly realistic stories, Gentlehands is milder in tone and less shocking in nature while still facing some of the difficult problems involving maturity, self-identity, racial relations, and social issues. Along with other works by M. E. Kerr such as Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack! (1972), the story of a young girl desperate for her mother’s attention, and The Son of Someone Famous (1974), a boy’s search for self-identity in the face of his parent’s success, Gentlehands compassionately addresses the problems of adolescence. All of Kerr’s books are immensely popular with teenage readers and with educators.