Atlantic Monthly

Growing (Up) at Eight

The boy at the center of this novel is a sort of Sixties royalty, a princeling of the radical left. The son of two figures sufficiently extreme to have concocted bombs and appeared on national news, his name is Che (“Jay,” insists his patrician grandmother, his legal custodian after abandonment by his mother), and he’s too young to know that the obligations of royalty are manifold, and rarely chosen.

The plot skips around, chronologically, but reveals quickly that the woman he thinks is his mother — arrived to pick him up from Grandma — is a Radcliffe bookworm and erstwhile friend and employee of the family. She finds herself, seemingly against her will and judgment, shepherding the boy through a world of radicalism, codes, and shadows, made more obscure still by the confusion of Che, whose tortured perspective we share.

The political aspects of the novel have attracted much of its reviewers’ attention, but its real grace is the bold portrayal of a timid child at the center of an adult drama. This is too rare in fiction about kids. Huck Finn, read by Che and his kidnapper on their journey, keeps good humor and self-confidence even when tormented morally. That sort of exuberance graces only some children in real life. In Che we feel his shivers of fright and self-doubt, his longing for familial love even when those closest to him have all found something they value more. Its depiction of Che and of Dial, the ‘Cliffie kidnapper, are sufficient to make this novel a beauty.

Originally appeared at


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