Everyone Dies Famous in a Small Town – at a glance
The School Reading Lists’ five word review: direct, spare, accessible, short stories.
Children’s book title: Everyone Dies Famous in a Small Town.
Children’s author: Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock.
Genre: Short stories.
Published by: Faber and Faber.
Recommended for children aged: Young adults.
First published: Paperback April 2021.
This children’s book is ideal for: Book clubs and a short story collection text study in years 10 & 11.
To see the latest price or order, click on the book cover image.
“Small-town trust is the backbone of small-town living. But it was unravelling.”
This is the line, towards the end of ‘The Stranger in the Woods‘, the penultimate story of this brilliant collection, that finally convinced me I was reading something very special indeed.
Trust is indeed the glue that binds us humans together, and for so many of the teenagers in these nine stories, the glue has perished and failed – welcome to the world of small-town western America, as seen and heard through the eyes and voices of these stricken teenagers.
I read these interlinked stories with increasing levels of anxiety for the characters and a growing sense of admiration for the author, as she charts the lives of the girls and boys involved as they try to navigate their way through a succession of crises not of their own making.
The stories are linked by the threads of the lives of the teenagers. In the first two stories – ‘Angry Star Fish‘ and ‘Pigeon Creek‘ we meet Poppy and Ruby who are sisters separated by the breakdown of their parents’ marriage.
Poppy has a make-believe friend, Elizabeth the mermaid, and they both appear again in the seventh story ‘Alaska was wasted on Us,’ at Camp Wildwood, a summer camp in Alaska.
Poppy’s intake sheet for the camp contains the telling line: ‘Poppy suffered a traumatic loss when her best friend went missing and was never found. They were both six at the time’. These stories are full of trauma, loss and disturbed childhoods. Adults, who should really know better, let down their children by their careless and selfish actions. Siblings and friends become substitute parents:
“Delia and her brother drifted away from their parents’ orbit the way the earth tilts on its axis and the sun and moon never touch, except for the rare eclipse when they stare at each other face to face and the world goes black”. – from ‘The Right Kind of People‘.
Priests are not to be trusted. Father Lazaria’s serial abuse causes immense damage and is a narrative that runs through several of the stories. Delia’s parents “still expected her to go to church and receive Communion from Father Monster’s shrivelled, stinky hand” but at the age of sixteen, Delia wreaks her revenge which leads to devastating consequences.
There are some responsible adults in the book. The mum in ‘Basketball Town‘ knows the difference between right and wrong and calls out any hints of racism and will not tolerate even the very minor offence of pinching a Snickers bar from the gym – “We will love you until the end of time no matter what you do”, she said, “but my children will not steal. And don’t forget it”.
In ‘Sea – Shaken Houses‘ we meet Jane and Martha. The girls have been best friends all their lives and are homeschooled but their “badass” mothers have a “strange dislike” for each other but at least they agree “that little girls should not be made to conform to anything that did not ebb and flow like the tide: their minds, at the very least, should run rampant along the beach”. Could the mothers’ dislike for each other be because the girls share the same father?
The writing in this superb story is simply outstanding. The isolated, sparsely populated community is captured with an economy of style that reminded me of Hemmingway at his best:
“The scattered sea – shaken houses on the cliffs overlooking the ocean had been built long ago, but they mirrored the people who came and went: reclusive and solitary, wind-beaten and up for grabs”.
Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock’s style is direct and spare but her prose does more than just describe people and locations; it examines deep human impulses. We all need, love, acceptance and security and these yearnings contrast acutely with the isolation, anger and instability that the children all too often encounter in these stories. Although the themes of ‘Everyone Dies Famous in a Small Town‘ are complex, the author’s skill makes the stories accessible and very easy to read – I finished the collection in two sittings.
At the end, I appreciated the significance of Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock’s take on the Bertolt Brecht line she chooses to introduce the book:
“When the world is on fire, we need each other more than ever.”
This is a great collection of stories that may well come back to haunt you but I guarantee you will not be disappointed by the reading or the haunting.
Many thanks to Faber and Faber for the review copy.
If you like Everyone Dies Famous in a Small Town by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock you might also like: Taylor Before and After by Jennie Englund, On the Move by Michael Rosen, Challenge Everything by Blue Sandford, Notes on My Family by Emily Critchley, our collection of graphic novels for 12-16 year olds, and our list of recommended books for KS4.