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December 18, 2022
By Karen Clark
Richard Duggin’s 'Boys in Exile' ponders children’s inhumanity toward children.

Who is fortunate enough to make it through life without being bullied? Who is honest enough to admit to having bullied others in turn when the opportunity arose? How can the cycle of picking fights for no reason at all, except to fight, be ended?

Boys in Exile came about because of my awareness of the rising tide of bullying, hazing, and social exclusion of unpopular teens by those higher up in the pecking order of social acceptance and power,” writes Richard Duggin, winner of this year’s BookLife Prize in fiction. Duggin is a graduate of the University of Iowa’s prestigious MFA program and an emeritus professor of the creative writing program he helped create at the University of Nebraska, In the past, he had agent representation, but he ultimately prefers the freedom and creative control afforded to him through publishing independently.

"I was appalled by the tragic manner in which bullying had advanced through social media, leading often to those bullied taking their own lives or seeking revenge with guns."
“Regarding my decision to self-publish my book, it was an easy choice for me,” Duggin says. “All four of the books I’ve published—three novels and a collection of my stories—were self-published, and all received positive reviews from readers and editors.” The BookLife Prize critic’s report for Boys in Exile raved about the novel, calling it “a haunting coming-of-age journey through the volatility of adolescence, overflowing with intensity and subtle power.” Though the bulk of the novel unfolds in the past, its sentiments about the toxic nature of bullying could not be more relevant today.

“I was appalled by the tragic manner in which bullying had advanced through social media, leading often to those bullied taking their own lives or seeking revenge with guns,” Duggin says. “I was drawn to think back on my teen years and my constant lookout against being picked on by bigger boys with nothing better to do with their time than harass the weakest or smartest or disfigured among their peers.”

The novel’s narrator, Elliott Street, sees his grandson and namesake, affectionately nicknamed Elliott Too, rush into the house bloody and bruised from yet another encounter with the schoolyard bullies who have been lying in wait to make his walk home from school a daily misery. As he tends his grandson’s wounds, he listens to what sounds like his younger self rationalizing his tormentors’ behavior, begging that they not be called to account for it “because I don’t want them to get into trouble. They’ll just be mad at me, and they’ll never be my friends.” Despite all evidence to the contrary, Elliott Too clings to the belief that one day he’ll discover the magic combination of words and deeds that will transform his oppressors into his friends. The narrator reflects, “I had both been victim to it and, I must admit, participated in it as well.”

A torrent of memories is unstoppered. Elliott Sr. relives the 1950s summer when he was 12 years old, just on the cusp of reaching the long-awaited status of teenager. He had “been ‘exiled’ for eight weeks to a summer camp in the New Hampshire’s White Mountains by an overprotective mother who, having lost one son to war—Elliott’s brother Calvin—fears losing a second to the ravages of the polio virus shrouded in the summer heat of their suburban home,” Duggin writes, describing the plot. “At camp, he is assigned a bunk in Timber Wolf cabin with nine other boys from different towns and cities in the Northeast They have all been promised they will ‘make new friends and learn lifelong skills,’ according to the camp’s brochure.”

Duggin immerses readers in the seemingly idyllic world of a small-town New Hampshire boys’ summer camp in the 1950s. Like Lord of the Flies and A High Wind in Jamaica, Boys in Exile evokes the harsh nature of childhood and the casual sadism of children. At the same time, Duggin relentlessly exposes the delusion involved in thinking of that time and place as exemplifying a kinder, more innocent America. As the narrator deflects the aggression of Billy Waite, the most ruthless, most conscienceless, and consequently the most popular boy in the Timber Wolf cabin, he also navigates grief for his older brother’s death in the Korean War. The quotidian existential anxiety that years of school “duck and cover” drills have normalized in response to the threat of nuclear annihilation is omnipresent, like today’s school-shooting drills. Like many an older and supposedly wiser person before him, the young Elliott undergoes the guilt, shame, and craven relief of standing by saying and doing nothing in response to the bully’s shifting the focus onto a victim who is—for the moment, at least—not himself.

Duggin is preoccupied with society’s resignation to the idea that unprovoked violence is an inevitability, and that part of growing up involves learning how to survive in a world that human beings make unsafe for one another in the name of civilization. Joe Craine, the nature counselor at the ominously named Camp Hemlock, tells the boys, “We’re a cruel species. We are the only animal capable of premeditated cruelty for our own pleasure.... We are a species that wars with itself, even when there’s no direct fight or flight threat. When we have no imminent enemy to fight, we still train our young men as if there were.”

In the novel, the brutal microcosm of playground taunts and after-school beat-downs mirrors the world of adult violence and aggression. For adults, it’s the war to save democracy from the evils of communism or the proliferation of nuclear warheads more than ample to wipe out several planets in addition to the one that humans regard as exclusively their own. For the children, it’s constantly walking the tightrope of trying to be cool enough, tough enough, fast enough on the draw with their words and their fists to escape becoming everyone’s favorite victim. In Boys in Exile,  Elliott recognizes the same cycle of cruelty impacting his grandson. So he does the only thing he can to protect him: he tells his story.

And Duggin continues to tell his. He’s working on his next novel, which again focuses on young people in the rural Midwest. His characters find themselves in conflict with expectations that they will follow in the footsteps of their forebears. If the novel is anything like Boys in Exile, Duggin can expect more glowing reviews ahead.

Bio: Karen Clark is a writer with an MFA from the City College of New York who previously owned an antiquarian bookshop in Manhattan.