Alex George’s new novel, Setting Free the Kites, is set on the coast of Maine in a village once dominated by a paper mill. It’s the 1970s, and the village is now surviving on summer tourism and an old amusement park run by the father of the novel’s teenage narrator, Robert. A well-behaved teen—cautious, even timid—Robert is the kind of kid who prefers to endure bullying rather than to raise a fuss.
That’s because there’s enough tragedy in the family already: Robert’s older brother, Liam, is dying of a degenerative illness, and the whole family lives in fear of the pain his inevitable death will surely cause them. Liam himself never succumbs to their morbid fixation with his condition, however: he’s in denial, full of the future and vibrantly alive despite his increasing disabilities. His story of perseverance introduces one of the novel’s themes.
Another appears courtesy of Nathan, a transfer student who arrives in time to fight off Robert’s bully and who quickly becomes a good friend. Nathan is the kind of teen who ignores all rules and feels compelled to try everything, including dangerous stunts. As is so often the case in teen-bonding stories, Nathan has his own family problems. On a whim, his father has moved the family to Maine from an office job in Texas, following his dream of becoming a lobsterman and kite-maker. Nathan’s reclusive mother does nothing but smoke, write at a typewriter, and build odd rock cairns on the beach. A tragedy in Robert’s home, too, soon brings the boys even closer together.
Like most of the town’s teens, Nathan and Robert take summer jobs at the amusement park. Robert helps to maintain the equipment while Nathan entertains as a mime in a dragon suit. Robert is firmly grounded in the realities of teenage life, but Nathan strives to be like a kite—airborne, free. He likes to spend the night at the top of the Ferris wheel and to climb the walls and even the smokestack of the abandoned paper mill. And he brings Robert along to the mill to share the kind of exciting and irresponsible teenage adventures that Robert needs.
Alex George uses the characters, the setting, and the era of Setting Free the Kites to comment on friendship and risk, life and death, freedom and grief. “There’s beauty in the unknown, Robert. Beauty and hope,” Robert’s mother tells him. “Sometimes life can be a little more bearable if you don’t know all there is to know.” The book is an engaging read, with the back-stories, family dramas, and quirky details that fill out a narrative. And on top of everything is the sometimes humorous, sometimes tragic symbolism (like the freed kites of the title) that knits a good story together.
Ralph Bowden, who holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina, has worked as an electrical engineer, history professor, home builder, alternative-energy consultant, and technical writer. A former resident of both Knoxville and Chattanooga, he lives in Cookeville.