The Scar Boys - Len Vlahos

In attempting to describe himself in his college application essay--help us to become acquainted with you beyond your courses, grades, and test scores--Harbinger (Harry) Jones goes way beyond the 250-word limit and gives a full account of his life.

The first defining moment: the day the neighborhood goons tied him to a tree during a lightning storm when he was 8 years old, and the tree was struck and caught fire. Harry was badly burned and has had to live with the physical and emotional scars, reactions from strangers, bullying, and loneliness that instantly became his everyday reality.

The second defining moment: the day in 8th grade when the handsome, charismatic Johnny rescued him from the bullies and then made the startling suggestion that they start a band together. 
Harry's description of his life in his essay is both humorous and heart-wrenching. (Description courtesy of Goodreads)

I wasn't sure what to expect with this book. I saw the cover on the shortlist for the Morris Award, and I knew I had to check it out as part of my shortlist read-through. Earlier in the year I reviewed two others on the shortlist, including The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim and The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender. Three books down, three to go.

The story concept is interesting, being written by Harry as a college application essay. Granted, it's an essay that would never be accepted, but it makes for a unique way of telling Harry's story and for explaining his motivations to readers. It was nice to find a story that also did not follow a more traditional high school to college trajectory, but rather one that is more a story in two parts: the first part is Harry's past, and the second part focuses on the summer after high school graduation (at least, for three of the four members of the band.)

Harry is a tormented, shy, and sheepish individual. Who wouldn't be after being tied to a tree and then struck by lightning, suffering from burns and disfigurations on his face and neck. As he becomes close to Johnny, he becomes more and more of a follower, allowing those around him to dictate his life and his decisions, at least until things start to unravel during the band's cross-country tour. Harry's development throughout the novel is bumpy, by design, showing his reluctance to move away from his safe life following others.

And speaking of following others, the secondary characters are quite intriguing. Harry's mother and father, though not present to a large degree, give reason for many of Harry's strengths and weaknesses. Ever since the lightning strike, the mother has become incredibly protective, while his father has become more absent and combative. Another fabulous character is Harry's therapist. He is a bit unorthodox, but he is effective. It's nice to see a therapist who isn't being used in stereotypically troubling ways; he is a capable counsellor and is not a total douche, either.

Cheyenne, Johnny, and Richie, are a great cast of supporting characters as well. Johnny is a bit annoying, and possibly the least rounded character (at least until the very end of the novel), but his strong personality works well as a counter to Harry's weaker character. Their friendship is manipulative in many respects, but by the end of the novel, readers will see Harry slowly come to an understanding with the help of his therapist.

He had a steeper road to climb than the average kid, but he ends up learning something about personal power, friendship, first love, and how to fit in the world. While he's looking back at the moments that have shaped his life, most of this story takes place while Harry is in high school and the summer after he graduates. (Description courtesy of Goodreads)

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