Skip to main content

Boy Underground


Boy Underground

The title of Catherine Ryan Hyde's latest novel has a double meaning. It could refer to Nick, Steven Katz's best friend and romantic crush. Because of an unbelievable betrayal by Nick's father, he must hide and ends up living underground in a root cellar on Steven's family's huge farm. It also could refer to Steven and the fact that he is gay, which he is hiding from his family and pretty much everyone else. During this time, homosexuality was considered a perversion and a crime. Steven's feelings, identity and persona are hidden "underground."

The narration begins in 1941 when Steven meets Suki, a fellow high school student who is of Japanese descent. Suki is trying out for the baseball team solely because his father wants him to, just as Steven's father has insisted he do the same. Neither boy makes the team, and as a result of this encounter, Suki introduces Steven to his friends, Ollie and Nick. The four boys form a close friendship despite their socioeconomic differences. Steven's father is the well-to-do owner of one of the large farms in the Northern California agricultural area, while the fathers of the other three boys are farm workers who are being mistreated by the farmers and living a subsistence lifestyle in small shacks.

"Because of the many important themes that Catherine Ryan Hyde raises, including prejudice, homophobia, family dysfunction, friendship, social status, Japanese internment, abusive parents and the futility of war, BOY UNDERGROUND would be a fine choice for book clubs."

It's made clear from the start that Steven's family is dysfunctional, to say the least. When Steven recounts the meals that his mother makes, we learn that they are barely edible. There is little conversation at the dinner table; his older brother is hostile and detached, his father perversely prefers to talk when his mouth is filled with food, and his mother is treated as someone whose opinion doesn't really count. Steven's old friends, whose parents are also landowners, are kids he no longer wants to be around. He explains that they are narrow-minded and refer to anyone they don't like as "faggots" or other pejoratives. For obvious reasons, that makes him uncomfortable.

Steven and his new friends go camping in the mountains, which he has never done before, even though he has lived at the foot of those mountains all his life. During the trip, his crush on Nick grows in intensity, but when they return to town, they are shocked to find that so much has changed. While they were obliviously enjoying the views and cold mountain air, Pearl Harbor was being attacked. Also, Nick's father drunkenly assaulted a man, which left him in a coma, and he blames Nick for it. Despite Steven’s and the other boys' statements that they were all together in the mountains at the time of the incident, the detectives want to arrest Nick. Suki also hears rumors that the Japanese living in California will be relocated, and he's worried.

Steven desperately wants to help his friends; he would do anything for them. But he's only 14, and his parents are bigoted, uncaring, snobby and cold-hearted. His mother tells him, "People judge you by the company you keep," and she asks him if his new friends are American. Although he understands what she’s really asking (are they Japanese?), he also knows that Suki is an American citizen. His parents won't agree to assist anyone who is not of their social status; they don't even want him to associate with these boys. So he does whatever he can to protect his friends.

The messages in this story are made clear by Hyde in a pretty straightforward manner. An older Chinese man, Gordon Cho, tells Steven that he must "practice accepting that things are incomplete." Cho explains that "to accept something means you stop trying to fight with what is." The point is that some things can't be changed. In Steven's case, this means he must accept that his parents, with their bigotry and homophobia, will not change. But there is so much more in his life that he must accept: the imprisonment of the Japanese and the fact that Americans took horrible advantage of their plight, his father’s false accusation, and Ollie's early enlistment in the military and its heartbreaking result.

I appreciate Hyde's ability to clearly and incisively show characters' motivations through their dialogue and action. Her writing is lovely and almost poetic. However, there are moments when the narrative feels weak by comparison. Instead of describing someone's feelings, she writes, "I might even have trouble putting it all into words" or "and it was... I'm sorry. I honestly don't have the words for what it was." But that's usually what she's so gifted at providing --- the words to describe just what the characters are feeling. I wanted more.

Despite these small lapses, we do end up with Hyde's insights about fate. From the year 2019, Steven catches us up on his life. While he didn't get what he thought he wanted at the age of 14, eventually he got something better --- a wonderful life filled with love and friends. And he shares another life lesson: when you give and give and give and become someone's savior, it's impossible to have an equal relationship. A true friendship or romance must be between equals. While he grew up with a biological family who essentially were strangers to him, he later found a family who loved and accepted him.

Because of the many important themes that Catherine Ryan Hyde raises, including prejudice, homophobia, family dysfunction, friendship, social status, Japanese internment, abusive parents and the futility of war, BOY UNDERGROUND would be a fine choice for book clubs.

Reviewed by Pamela Kramer on December 17, 2021

Boy Underground
by Catherine Ryan Hyde

  • Publication Date: December 7, 2021
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 334 pages
  • Publisher: Lake Union Publishing
  • ISBN-10: 1542021553
  • ISBN-13: 9781542021555