Rating: 5 stars
Danny is 18, gay and homeless after his parents kicked him out of the house for being gay at the age of 16. Danny is surviving but only barely. Two years of street living and he knows that its better if he’s invisible to all those around him, it makes it easier to hide and get through the day. But when Danny sees a young boy being threatened, he rushes to the boy’s aid, saving him and making enemies in the process. The boy Danny saves, Harry, is determined to make life better for his homeless savior and starts bringing him clothes and food when he can. A tenuous bond forms between the well off school boy Harry and the wary, thin homeless Danny. After a time, Harry persuades Danny to come home with him to meet his mom and the bonds between them strengthens and becomes something that Danny is afraid to put a name to.
But several traumatic events occur that sees Danny in the hospital, his life changed again. And when he is ready to get out, Danny decides that he will make major changes in his life. So with help, Danny regains his health, and decides to become David, a new name for a new life. But the old Danny still exists inside, mistrustful, wary of the future. When a new love presents itself, can David overcome his past and move into a future with a man called Jack or will his true identity and his old memories keep him from ever finding happiness again.
The Sky Is Dead an absolute wonder of a story. I was given a copy to read and what a marvelous little surprise that turned out to be. I was also unfamiliar with the author, another thing this happy event remedied. I started in reading and soon forgot everything else around me as I was pulled in deeper and deeper into Danny’s life and story. I read it all the way through, stopping only to get my box of tissues. And by the end, I knew I had just read a remarkable story and found a new author to love.
Sue Brown’s descriptions and characterizations bring the reader swiftly and intimately into the world of the homeless. It is not merely Danny we see struggling to survive on the streets, but several other homeless people who meet up at the local shelter for food and medical treatment. We are brought into a life where neglect of the body and soul are common place, hopelessness and sickness go hand in hand, and the potential for abuse and death lurks at every street corner and city park. Bushes become beds and hiding places and the slightest cough becomes a harbinger of mortality.
Into this desolate existence, the author thrusts Danny, a young man ill prepared for such a life. Betrayed by his boyfriend, a simple kiss removes Danny from his sheltered life. One moment he has a family, a home and school, the next he is on the street with nothing to his name. We feel his shock, the tenuity of life he now lives and the despair and anger he feels. Brown makes it all feel so very real that the reader will find themselves angry and despairing along with Danny every step of the way. The author has a gift in bringing this awful existence to life that you can’t help but be moved, not only by Danny but for all his real life counterparts in cities all over the world. The shelter, a beacon for those in need, is filled with beautifully realized characters, from Billy and Lil, a homeless pair with mental impairments to Ben, a former homeless man who now works at the shelter. Its all there, every authentic detail, the shabbiness, the squalor and filth of the homeless themselves, even the horrifed “looks” of people passing by Danny on the street. Brown uses all of these elements as building blocks to create a realistic, and immensely sad foundation on which she lays out Danny’s life history.
I really don’t want to go into details here because I might give away too much of this incredible story. I will say that Brown’s narrative is told in a concise, and compelling manner. It flows easily between two time periods in a way that never seems jarring or artificial. I do love the dialog Brown has created for each of her characters. It fits them and their circumstances exactly. Here is Danny talking about the shelter:
They ask for a donation at the shelter for their hot meals, although they don’t make a fuss if you can’t pay up. I’ve learned not to be proud, but I help if I can, and sometimes, I don’t want the shelter’s food. I don’t think of myself as a hooker. Shit, I could make more money if I stayed in South London, but I live in a small town not far from Guildford. I don’t fancy standing outside Sainsbury’s, selling my arse every night to commuters and family men. I do enough to get me a hot meal and no more.
They’re pleased enough to see me at the drop-in center, which is really just a small room in the shelter. Ben, one of the volunteers, looks up from his paperwork and greets me with a cheery good morning as I walk in. I recognize most of the faces now. Old Johnny is already there, in his usual spot. He grunts at me as I walk past. I’ll go and talk to him later, after I’ve had my breakfast. Lil and Billy grin at me from the window seat. In the two years I’ve been coming to the shelter, I’ve never seen them apart. Lil’s about thirty, I guess, with Billy a few years younger. They’re inseparable, despite the fact both of them have learning difficulties. Billy told me the authorities don’t approve of their relationship, and each new social worker at the shelter tries to split them up. The last one ended up in Accident & Emergency. Billy took exception to the social worker trying to manhandle Lil and punched the man in the face. The assault earned Billy a few nights in the cells, and Lil went into a decline. It was the intervention of Greg, the manager of the shelter, that got them back together. I think they’re the lucky ones, in an odd way. They’d get more help if they were alone, but they love each other and provide comfort and support to each other in the best and worst of times. They don’t have to face the bloodsucking loneliness of being on your own twenty-four hours a day.
“The bloodsucking loneliness of being on your own twenty-four hours a day.” What a perfect line and description of Danny’s day. We feel every second of it’s loneliness, it scary and degrading aspects too. And when things start to look up for Danny, we are as terrified as he is to accept that it is real and might last more than a day.
This is a raw, emotional story and Sue Brown tells it pragmatically, and realistically, making its impact all the more profound. Every day we read or hear more stories about GLBT youth in danger, from vicious physical and verbal attacks to the ever more soul killing banal rejections of community and finally that of their family. More shelters are operating in every city and still there is not enough to house those in need. Sue Brown’s story brings the plight of those “throwaway” children to life in the form of Danny. It’s a tale that needs to be told. The Sky Is Dead is one more powerful cry for help. I cannot begin to recommend this book and its author enough. Read it, gift it, and spread the word.
Book cover: art by Christine Griffin presents us with one of the more powerful covers I can remember. It’s perfect in subject matter and emotion. One of the best of the year.