David E. Hilton doesn’t start out slowly—his compelling debut, a haunting coming-of-age story set during the 1960s at a reformatory school in rural Colorado, tackles human nature at its most fundamental levels, pitting good against evil, friendship against betrayal and innocence against corruption.
After years of horrifying abuse against him and his mother, 13-year-old William Sheppard, a Chicago boy with no record of trouble, stabs his father in an act of self-defense and is sentenced to two years at the Swope Ranch Boys Reformatory, where the horses and the boys tasked with training them are equally wild. Will quickly learns that some of his fellow inmates are, like him, good boys at heart driven to crime by circumstance. He befriends three—Mickey, Cooper and Benny—and the quartet bands together against the rampant cruelty of the guards, the harsh manual labor and unforgiving climate and the intangible taxation of guilt and loneliness. But there is a force in the camp more evil than any of them could have possibly imagined, and in desperate scene after desperate scene, Will and his friends fight to survive in the most unthinkable circumstances.
Kings of Colorado is Hilton’s first novel, and in many ways, it shows—the prose lacks some polish and sophistication, and he could have done more with Will’s adult voice, which narrates the story from 50 years later. But where he excels is his heartbreaking portrayal of innocence lost in the most profound sense. A former middle school teacher, Hilton clearly understands the struggle of adolescence, and he interrogates that struggle with finesse and admirable curiosity by pushing his characters to their most extreme limits. Will and his compatriots are achingly sympathetic, and their bond with each other and communal will to survive is riveting and thought-provoking.