Book Review: Hurt People

The COVID-19 pandemic for all the fear it brings, has also given many of us some much needed time to concentrate on hobbies or projects that have fallen to the wayside. For me, I was finally able to finish “Hurt People” by Cote Smith and it seems that I finished it at just the right time as the overarching theme seems to fit perfectly with what we are dealing with right now.

So what does a coming of age tale about two brothers who meet a man who is not what he seems while growing up in Leavenworth, KS have to do with COVID-19? Well initially nothing.

The story begins with two brothers trying to navigate life after the recent divorce of their parents, their father being a cop and mother working at the local golf course. Their escape from the world are the afternoons they sneak out of the apartment, while their mother is at work, to go the pool. The story is set against the backdrop of a prison break, in which one man who the boys nickname, The Stranger has escaped from Leavenworth Penitentiary. A man, the boys’ father had previously put away. It’s soon after the prison break that they meet a man named Chris, who is constantly at the pool the same time as the boys.

The story is told from the perspective of the younger brother, who we learn isn’t all that good at keeping secrets. While this isn’t necessarily the worst quality in the world, Chris values secrecy in his relationship with the boys and it’s perhaps because of the narrators’ inability to keep a secret, that Chris becomes closer to the eldest brother. The secrets start small; the technique involved in the execution of a diving board trick called, the Gainer and eventually ramp up as the story reaches it’s climax.

Secrets are a big part of the story: the eldest brother keeping secrets from the narrator, the boys keeping secrets from their parents, the father keeping a secret tape, etc. I could go on but trust me when I say, the secrets are rife throughout and weaves a tangled web that eventually shows us that in keeping secrets, we often wind up hurting the ones we love the most.

A secret, Chris explained, can’t be spoken. Put into words. A secret is a place, or an action. A symbol. Secrets aren’t told. They are shown. Revealed. When you share a secret with someone, they look at you confused…Or they feel hurt that you kept something from them, even though it was for their own good, even though they weren’t ready. That’s why it’s best not to tell. Even the people you love. Especially the people you love. If a secret is a secret, when it’s revealed, it hurts people.

“Hurt People” Cote Smith

Without giving away the end, this particular passage becomes important at the end. Similarly, this passage is pertinent to what we are dealing with in regard to the current pandemic. While COVID-19 isn’t a secret to anyone, we ave the potential to hurt those we love by not maintaining social distancing. Likewise we can unwittingly hurt those we love if we happen to be an asymptomatic carrier of the virus. A secret of sorts that is unknown to us and those we come in contact with.

And yes, a month in we are well aware of the concept of social distancing and why it’s important. But we were told earlier this week that the quarantine would stand through the end of April, which means that some of us are seeing staying inside as the new normal (me) while others are starting to feel as through they can’t go on living like this anymore. Both are normal responses, but one leads us to inadvertently hurting others and the other hopefully brings about the eventual end of this pandemic.

Until then, perhaps curling up with a copy of “Hurt People” will get you through. It is beautifully written with all the whimsy and innocence of childhood and teases your imagination with the steady lapping of chlorinated pool water against sun-warmed skin.

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