When a soldier comes home
Tim Tharp didn’t start out writing novels for teens. But after visiting book clubs to talk about his first book, Falling Dark (winner of the Milkweed National Fiction Prize), he says, “I had such a good time talking to high school students about it, I thought, I’m going to write a novel for them.”
The idea stuck—and it’s been working well, to say the least. His debut YA novel, Knights of the Hill Country, was named to the ALA Best Books of 2007 list. His second, The Spectacular Now, was a 2008 National Book Award finalist and has been optioned for a movie.
His newest, BADD, is a creative and moving exploration of what happens when a young soldier named Bobby returns home from war, no longer able to relate to the life—or self—he’d left behind.
Bobby always was a rebellious sort, a charming risk-taker whose antics inspired the book’s title, as explained by narrator Ceejay, Bobby’s adoring younger sister: “He was wild and he was B-A-D-D, BADD.” Things got worse when he stole a car; that’s when he had to choose between the army or jail.
But after several tours of duty, he’s finally coming home, and Ceejay is unbearably excited, not least because of her big plan: They’ll move in together, get jobs and escape their small town. She plans to surprise Bobby with the idea, but is herself surprised when she sees him in town—which can’t be right, because that’d mean he was home early, and didn’t tell her he was coming.
Soon, a lot of things don’t seem right to Ceejay, who’s already frustrated from her arguments with Captain Crazy, a wildly eccentric local man whose anti-war protests make her angry and defensive. Then there are her parents—her unfailing perky mom, and her dad, who doesn’t understand anything, least of all her.
The inspiration for BADD was drawn from a mix of old and new influences, Tharp says from his home outside Oklahoma City. “It was partially inspired by what’s going on in our country right now, but it was also a story idea I’d had in mind for years. This one was going to be a post-World War I novel.”
The idea morphed into something different when some of his students at a local community college began coming back from Iraq. “A few of them had post-traumatic stress disorder. . . . I started thinking that was something important to take a look at,” he recalls.
Tharp took an additional layer of care with an already delicate subject because “the suburb I live in is an Air Force town. There is that feeling of wanting to do them justice.”
In fact, the author’s father was a WWII veteran who told Tharp stories about his experiences. “I always thought having the perspective of a young person on a returning soldier would be interesting,” he says. “But really, the driving force was to investigate different aspects of courage, besides just facing physical violence like you see in movies.”
That off-the-field courage is a quality Ceejay possesses, though she doesn’t know it at first. She’s occupied with her confusion and hurt at the changes in her brother, who, to her shock, starts spending time with Captain Crazy. And her mother’s perkiness, at first annoying, reveals itself to be something else entirely: a choice to remain upbeat, no matter what—itself a type of strength.
“Ceejay has to rely on different kinds of courage, like perseverance and standing up behind someone you love. The kind she draws upon is something I think women have more access to than men, who are supposed to put on a tough act,” Tharp says. “Ceejay starts looking around and realizes she’s more like the women in her family than she thought she was.”
That’s a challenging emotional journey for people of any age, but Tharp said it doesn’t occur to him to shy away from what some might view as heavy topics for a YA book. “I grew up hearing those war stories from my dad, and both my parents died of cancer. I’ve gone through those kinds of battles myself, so I drew upon them.”
After all, he adds, “Kids do go through these kinds of things. I think it’d be good for them to have a book, so if they’re going through something, they see the characters are, too. . . And a lot of kids read adult novels. Why not bring that complexity to the YA novel itself?”
It’s the very complexity of BADD that makes it such a memorable read; amid the struggle and catharsis are humor, beauty, wonder and hope. Tharp says it wasn’t an easy book to write: “It was kind of draining, but satisfying at the same time, like doing a good physical workout.”
Turning the last page of BADD is sure to leave readers feeling the same—a little worn out, a lot more clear-eyed and suffused with the glow that comes from knowing they’ve just finished something important.