Del Hartwick is a perfectly nice 17-year-old. He has a female parrot named Fred, a job digging graves, parents addicted to saving animals, dreams of becoming a vet and a new girl he wants to meet.

Del is also a convicted felon. And with his criminal record come a probation officer, a therapist, a 10 o’clock curfew and prohibitions on owning a computer and a cell phone that can text.

What terrible crimes has Del Hartwick committed?

As readers of Susan Vaught’s new novel, Going Underground, learn, Del had no idea he was breaking the law when, at 14, he and his girlfriend began exploring their feelings for another: “I had a girlfriend a few months younger than me, and we thought about sex and made decisions we thought were responsible. We didn’t take chances with pregnancy or diseases, and we tried to stay within what we thought was right . . .”

Del’s actions at age 14—touching by mutual consent and exchanging nude pictures on a cell phone—broke laws, laws neither he nor his parents knew about until it was too late. His conviction means, among other things, that since he was over 14 but his girlfriend wasn’t, he’ll have to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.

Sound like the stuff of fiction? Not always. Vaught, a practicing psychiatrist (and parrot owner), has treated teens in therapy who find themselves in similar situations. They, like Del, are trying to plan for a future which has already been taken away.

Going Underground is full of compelling, fully realized characters (human and parrot alike) who try to muster the courage to move forward. It’s not easy, and not everyone succeeds. But as the reader gets to know Del, it’s hard not to begin rooting for him, and to hope that, sometime in the future, the first patient will walk into his avian veterinary practice to be greeted by an African Gray who politely introduces herself by saying, simply, “Fred.”

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