Last Updated on May 14, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2879
The story focuses primarily around two teenage boys: Torey Adams and Christopher Creed. Before Creed's disappearance, Plum-Ucci casts the two boys as opposites, but then blurs the distinctions. Before the disappearance Torey is the popular football star and the center of attention and Chris is the outcast no one bothers to understand. After the disappearance, Torey loses his sense of importance and Chris takes center stage.
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The presence of Chris Creed dominates the story though he never appears in the scenes. Torey Adams is the primary character and our only knowledge of Chris comes second hand. Because Torey narrates the story, it is Torey who makes Chris come alive and Torey whose insights build Chris's character. Readers view Christopher Creed much differently at the end of the novel than they do at the beginning, but it is only through Torey's reactions that this occurs. It is Torey who changes; Chris never changes at all.
Christopher Creed's experience differs so totally from Torey's that the two characters appear to be opposites. Torey is admired by his peers and Chris is despised by them. Torey hears nothing but praise and Christopher endures nothing but bullying and verbal abuse. But the diversity of their experience cannot undermine the similarity of human emotion, and Torey learns that the world cannot be divided into black and white. Throughout the novel the story of Torey's exploration and the story of Chris Creed's disappearance are intricately intertwined.
Torey is an only child of an attorney mom and a father who owns an engineering firm, and he has always enjoyed a position of status, both socially and economically. He passes judgment on others without realizing the consequences because he has lived a sheltered life; his limited experience leads to a limited understanding of differences. Torey is not insensitive but simply naive; he has never experienced hardship and thus fails to recognize hardship and understand how it molds a person's outlook on life. He must learn to feel empathy and compassion for others. The novel follows Torey on a search and discovery mission where a series of events opens Torey's eyes to life's realities. During the course of the novel Torey learns to look beyond appearances, and he progresses from a proud and self-centered boy to a mature and sensitive young man.
Torey's transformation begins when he gets hold of a letter Chris wrote and he embarks on a quest for answers. The letter is enigmatic and intriguing, but Torey finds it deeply disturbing as well. The letter leaves no clues as to what happened to Chris but simply opens up more questions, and Torey makes it his mission to get those questions answered. Torey reacts differently to the letter than the other kids, or at least he reacts differently than how he sees them react. The other kids are quick to joke and quick to poke fun at Christopher, even after his disappearance. But while Torey himself had always acted this way before, he now feels sickened by this behavior. He recognizes Chris' agony, and feels remorse upon hearing his own name mentioned in the letter and reads how Chris always admired him.
Because Torey is telling the story in retrospect, he reveals his sensitive and compassionate side early in the novel. Plum- Ucci establishes Torey as both a fallible and a likeable character right away, which engages the reader in his development and allows her to use him to deliver her message. Torey is a typical teenager, prone to stereotyping and to condemning those he fails to understand. This makes him an effective voice of Steepleton. Torey introduces the other characters in the book by placing them in stereotypical groups, and discrimination emerges as primary theme.
Discrimination can be pervasive in small towns, and especially in elitist towns like Steepleton. The rich kids of Steepleton call the lower class kids who live out of town the boons, for example, and they characterize them as bad kids because they typically have long hair and wear muscle shirts and have a reputation for getting into fights. Torey formulates his opinion of the boons based solely on their reputation, as do the other kids at Steepleton. The world of the boons differs so drastically from Torey's world that he fails to recognize feelings these strangers may have as anything similar to his own.
In the process of sorting out the mystery of Christopher Creed however, an unexpected friendship develops between Torey and Bo Richardson, the boon with the worst reputation. Before this time, Torey knows only that Bo is big and scary and that he pushed Chris off the bleachers once and put him on crutches. Bo Richardson and Ali emerge as primary characters early in the novel and Torey's interaction with them opens his eyes to another world. When Torey discovers that Bo has a secret relationship with his old friend Ali, he is amazed to find that Bo is nothing like he expected. When Torey sees that Bo treats Ali well and in fact serves as her protector, and when he has the opportunity to talk with Bo, Torey comes to respect Bo and in a short time begins to view Bo's background as a mark of maturity.
Shortly after Torey discovers that Bo Richardson is Ali's boyfriend, the three of them become unlikely allies and attempt to solve the mystery of what happened to Christopher Creed. Once they join forces, things spin quickly out of control. Looking to place blame for the disappearance, the three begin to believe that Christopher's mother had something to do with it, and they take it upon themselves to find out if this is true. Torey places a phone call to the Creed residence to get Mrs. Creed out of the house so the three of them can break into the house to find Chris' diary. They get caught and wind up at the police station. Once in custody, Torey is shocked to discover how the police quickly pin the blame on Bo and refuse to believe that Torey and Ali had any involvement whatsoever.
Torey and Ali both confess to their involvement, yet the police still take Bo away. Torey finds it disturbing that the police, who are allegedly respectable people, did not see the situation clearly at all. "I guess I thought seeing a situation clearly was just part of being a grown-up," Torey remarks. But Torey has a lot to learn about injustice and discrimination. These themes drive the plot. In Steepleton it seems that everyone has a label, and these labels leave no room for personal growth. Bo had been labeled a juvenile offender and continues to be condemned as such. This deeply disturbs Torey, and he soon begins to see that the police have every intention of accusing Bo of murder.
What disturbs Torey even more about the situation at the station is that Bo knows the police are going to pin the whole thing on him, and he seems to have resigned himself to it. He's beginning to see how people tend to live up to the expectations of others, and no one expected Bo to behave lawfully. When Torey first reads Chris' email he begins to see how much Chris struggled to break free of the mold in which his peers placed him. But once Chris had been labeled a weirdo, there was little he could do to shake the image. As Torey learns to recognize injustice in the world around him he begins to understand how Chris was unjustly persecuted. As Torey begins to see the fallacy of appearances, he learns acceptance, compassion, and loyalty.
Torey learns acceptance by witnessing alienation, he learns compassion by witnessing cruelty, and he learns loyalty by witnessing betrayal. Before he gets to know Bo, Torey believes that Bo must be bad because the boon label has negative connotations. Similarly, until Torey learns otherwise, he believes that Chief Bowen must be good because the Chief of Police label has positive connotations. Once Torey realizes that neither of these things is true he begins to see that the world cannot be divided into black and white. Bo and Officer Bowen have a combination of good and bad qualities, just as Christopher Creed does and as Torey does himself. Suddenly nothing is what it seems and Torey's must restructure his reality. Torey must search for the gray area between black and white and learn to recognize common emotions that lock seemingly different people in a common bond.
Torey's mom gets involved in the situation at the police station and attempts to bail them out of trouble. Mrs. Adams seems logical, yet she too is prone to biased judgment. She tells Torey in the station that Bo is not the kind of person she wants her son to befriend, and she cannot understand why Torey is so concerned about how badly the police treat Bo. Mrs. Adams struggles against the conventions of Steepleton because she recognizes the error of biased judgment yet is guilty of it herself. Steepleton, after all, is a town full of upstanding citizens, a town where people quote scripture. Mrs. Adams has a reputation to uphold in the town, and she cannot let her son go down by virtue of his association with Bo.
As Torey gains insight into what goes on in Steepleton, hypocrisy emerges as a primary theme in the novel. When Torey realizes that he cannot admit to anyone that Bo is his friend he feels enslaved by the hypocrisy. Just as his mother wishes to protect him, he knows he must hide his relationship with Bo to protect Ali and she must hide her relationship with Bo to protect herself. While Torey and Ali struggle with this realization Bo accepts the situation and has learned how to play the game. Loyal to Ali, he protects her by hiding their relationship.
Torey's mother may fall prey to the hypocrisy that characterizes Steepleton, but she is both insightful and intelligent and serves as a teacher to Torey and Ali when she sheds light on another event that happened in Steepleton years before. Mrs. Adams tells them about Bob Haines, a man who disappeared from Steepleton years before and is rumored to be buried in the town's Native American burial ground. Mrs. Adams puts Christopher Creed's experience into perspective when she relates the story of Digger Haines, the son of Bob Haines and a high school football star who suffered abuse by his peers after having lost his leg in a motorbike accident in his junior year. Digger, like Christopher, understood the pain of alienation, and he too ran away from Steepleton never to be seen again. His father, in his agony, walked into the woods and was never seen again. "I don't think anybody meant anything by [calling him names]" Mrs. Adams tells Torey, speaking of Digger. "I think they were just calling names because . . . as long as kids could make a joke out of it, then it meant that nothing serious had happened. It couldn't happen to them, couldn't even touch them." But Digger suffered and his father Bob suffered, and both had to remove themselves from Steepleton to escape their suffering.
Showing how Mrs. Adams relates to Torey forces an examination of parenting style and an analysis of how parents influence a child's development. On one hand Mrs. Adams was an elitist, but on the other hand she was compassionate. Mrs. Adams appears to have a much different relationship with Torey than Mrs. Creed has with Christopher, yet the strength of their parental love unites them in the common purpose of protecting their sons. They also share a strong instinct to survive.
Mrs. Creed's desire to pin the crime on Bo appears to be based largely on her desire to exonerate herself from guilt. Torey learns that he is doing much the same thing by attempting to blame Mrs. Creed for her son's disappearance, and again he begins to recognize human traits that bond seemingly opposite people. Everyone in Steepleton attempts to survive the Creed tragedy by pointing the finger at someone else. Mrs. Creed finds herself criticized for her parenting style but cannot allow herself to believe that she had anything to do with her son's disappearance or that her son could have been so unhappy as to run away or commit suicide. So it is easiest for her to pin the crime on someone else, and Bo Richardson is a likely suspect. Bo, after all, is from the boons with a juvenile record and Mrs. Creed knows she will have no trouble getting the town to destroy him.
Everyone in Steepleton seems to have a reputation to fight due to the harmful effects of labeling, and Torey is as guilty as anyone of assigning the labels. But as Torey learns more about Bo's behavior and about Chief Bowen's behavior, he learns more about the harmful effect of labeling and about how it destroyed Christopher Creed. Ali has a reputation of her own to fight, and she falls for Bo because he understands her and does not hold her life against her like everyone else does. Bo understands how and why boons get blamed for everything, and Torey has a lot to learn from him. Bo does what he has to do to survive in the world, but his means of survival may look different than Torey's or Ali's or anyone else's. Interestingly, Mrs. Creed grew up in the same environment Bo is growing up in, and this certainly effects how she responds to pain and tragedy as well.
As Torey gains insight into new worlds he learns much about human defense mechanisms from observing how the other characters think and act. In the police station, a man named Mr. Ames gives Torey insight on the nature of denial. Mr. Ames confesses that Digger Haines, the boy who disappeared years ago, was his friend, and he then goes on to say that he knew something similar to what happened to Digger was bound to happen again. When Torey questions him on this Mr. Ames answers that it had to happen again because no one learned from what happened to Digger. "Nobody stopped believing that other people were more guilty than they were." Mr. Ames poses the following question: "Why do people have so much trouble seeing their own faults but such an easy time seeing everyone else's?" This helps Torey put things into perspective. He understands why he and the other kids at Steepleton condemn Chris for being obnoxious and bringing his torment on himself. The novel makes it clear that the kids at Steepleton joke about what happened to Chris because they always did, and that they laugh and joke because they cannot face any true feelings about what happened.
Torey's relationship with his girlfriend Leandra suffers during his search and exploration period, and one incident between Torey and Leandra helps explain how Torey's recognition of discrimination effects him. In a phone conversation between the two of them, Torey blows up when Leandra calls Bo a "dirtbag" and Ali a "turbo slut." But Torey's outburst seems to reveal how people are most critical about traits they see in others that they are ashamed of having themselves. It is unclear whether Torey truly recognizes the meaning of his outburst, but he is beginning to understand how Digger Haines, and possibly Chris Creed, had no choice but to run from Steepleton because that was the only way they could free themselves of the labels that enslaved them there. Torey becomes more aware of this when he meets Isabella, a girl Chris refers to in his diary as his girlfriend. Though Torey and Ali learn that Isabella was not Chris's girlfriend she did give him a chance. This was something Torey and everyone else disallowed Chris in Steepleton. Ali says that what Chris needed was a new start, and that Isabella did not know his reputation and could give this to him.
After Torey and Ali's visit with Isabella the novel progresses quickly to its conclusion. Isabella puts a lot in perspective for Torey, but her psychic aunt leads him to believe that he will find the answer to what happened to Christopher Creed. This odd woman tells Torey that she sees "death in the woods" and that he will be the one to discover the death. Then in a particularly harrowing scene in the Native American graveyard Torey does in fact discover a body and witnesses its disintegration upon exposure to oxygen. Here the death theme of the novel comes into focus as the reality Torey once knew gets buried forever. Torey emerges from the experience a new person. Though the body Torey discovers is not the body of Christopher but the body of Bob Haines, and though Torey never does know for certain if Chris is dead or alive, the disappearance of Christopher Creed forces Torey to evaluate his actions and move in new directions. By the end of the novel Torey is more sensitive and empathetic to the needs and hardships of others, and is starting life anew at boarding school. He too felt the necessity to remove himself from Steepleton and from the same destructive bonds that doomed Christopher Creed.
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