Whether pre-teen years are recalled with fondness or fear, Rakesh Satyal’s debut novel, Blue Boy, illustrates with near-equal parts of humor and sadness that adolescent angst is universal. With a passionate message of self-discovery, acceptance, and making choices, Satyal presents a bittersweet look at how culturally and sexually marginalized children find strength through adversity.
The year is 1992, and the place is Crestview, Ohio, a quiet suburb of Cincinnati. Kiran Sharma, the book’s sixth grade narrator, is an Indian-American boy who feels the pressure to achieve academically, to be the perfect son to his loving parents, and to find a nice Indian girl to marry one day. Kiran, however, is wild about Whitney Houston, adores Strawberry Shortcake, goes crazy for ballet lessons, and relishes the color pink.
To complicate matters further, Kiran alternately struggles with how different he seems from others his age and with how easy it is to live a covert life at home. At school, his peers tease him mercilessly. Even his Indian friends taunt him at weekend get-togethers. At home, he hides his dolls and surreptitiously applies his mother’s makeup. This is not to say that he is an unhappy child. On the contrary, he revels in the colorful, the flamboyant, and the things that girls covet. He is a funny and clever young man whose world view is both amusing and thought-provoking. His primary focus, however, is performing in the annual school talent show and revealing in a big way to the audience that he is—as he steadfastly believes—the 10th incarnation of the blue-skinned god, Krishna.
Typical of many pre-teens, however, Kiran is not as innocent as he seems. As the book progresses, he lies to his parents. He breaks promises to two of his peers. Bad choices lead him into situations that not only land him in hot water but also threaten to expose his closely kept secrets.
Consequences come in many forms, and Kiran has an epiphany as Satyal plainly and without adornment writes, “If Cody and Donny caught me looking at naked men … I cannot even think about such a thing. The entire school would find out, and I would never, ever be able to show my face at school again. Nothing is more terrifying than knowing that one glance out of place could destroy my entire existence.”
Kiran knows what he wants, but he questions himself and how he ultimately fits into the world. Throughout the book, Satyal’s writing hits the mark in exposing his character’s conflicted existence: “When someone motions to strike you, when someone throws something at you, you flinch or wince. But I have always felt that something is being hurled at me, so I guess I could say that I have lived my life in a perpetual flinch.”
This is a coming of age story that doesn’t fully complete the trip from Point A to Point B, but it leaves the reader wanting to know what comes next for the vivacious and precocious narrator. Although his sense of humor as an author is evident from beginning to end, Satyal’s writing is at its best when exploring the conflicts Kiran must overcome. It is with this balance that Satyal keeps both Kiran and the reader on their toes. Blue Boy is a story that will make the reader not only laugh out loud but also feel empathy for the complicated, likeable, and frustrating Kiran.
Jeanne E. Fredriksen reads and writes near Chicago, and freelances as a copywriter and teaches Creative Writing to children through the Center for Gifted-National Louis University.