American Boy by Larry Watson
Published: 2012 by Milkweed Editions
American Boy is a novel set in the early 1960s in rural Minnesota. On Thanksgiving Day, the town doctor is forced to interrupt his meal to treat Louisa Lindahl, the victim of a shooting by her boyfriend. Since his office and clinic are in his home, she is taken there for treatment, and Dr.Dunbar’s son and best friend are invited to observe his work. While the doctor steps away, Matt dares to lower the sheet covering the patient and sees her bare breast – the first one he has seen up close. This incident propels the rest of the novel forward — Matt becomes obsessed with Louisa and the close relationship he has enjoyed with the Dunbar family is put in jeopardy.
I found the novel to be just ok – I neither liked nor disliked it. It felt like a realistic portrayal of the place and time in which it was set, but I felt the plot was not enough to keep me interested in the entire novel. Teenage boys get crushes on girls all of the time, and in my opinion this novel did not add anything interesting or original to that narrative.
But it was for book club so I finished the novel. And the discussion surprised me. Nobody really said whether or not they liked the book, but rather the discussion became about how the novel perpetuated stereotypes of women both then and now. You have Mrs. Dunbar (I don’t recall her first name ever being mentioned), the “ideal” doctor’s wife — staying at home to care for her husband and children, while meeting the social obligations the community expects of her; and then you have Louisa — a young woman looking for her way to move up in the world. We then discussed whether or not anything has changed for women in the 50 years since the era in which this novel takes place — of course there have been dramatic changes, but some in our group (not me — but then I’m close to the youngest in the group) felt that society still bases a woman’s status on her husband (or lack thereof).
So again, even though I wasn’t head over heels in love with the book, I’m glad I attended the book club this month. Sometimes the discussions take you places you didn’t think about on your own.