Rating: 5 stars out of 5
On the outside Rusty Baker might look like just another stereotypical football player, just one of many in his high school that looked as though they were popped out of a mold for tall, big, blond rich boys. But on the inside Rusty is different, a difference that remains hidden until Oliver Campbell, small, dark and out Oliver Campbell, enrolls in his high school and sits next to Rusty in class. When one of the more brutish football players starts in on Oliver in class, Rusty is there to cut him off, making his protection of Oliver clear to all. A close friendship is started, one Rusty doesn’t understand. Because Rusty suffers from poor self esteem and thinks he is stupid. Rusty can’t understand why the cute and highly intelligent Oliver would want to be his friend. Then the day before Rusty is to leave for Berkeley, Oliver kisses him and everything changes for them both.
The hardest thing Rusty ever had to do was leave Oliver behind going to a community college while Rusty left town for a school he knew he wasn’t ready for and couldn’t survive in. Rusty is under a mountain of stress over everything, from grades to his sexuality and the pressure almost does him in. When Rusty returns home for Thanksgiving, it all explodes when his parents catch him kissing Oliver in the driveway and they kick him out, homeless at the holidays.
While Oliver and his dad may not have material wealth, they are rich in acceptance and love. And with their support and Oliver’s love, Rusty just might make it through not only the holidays but the rest of his life.
In Rusty Baker Amy Lane has created one of the most luminous, heartbreaking characters I have ever read. Ten pages into the story I started weeping over this glorious man child who has been made to feel stupid and inadequate for all his years, promptly forgetting that Rusty exists only in the pages of Christmas Kitsch and the fertile imagination of Amy Lane. Told from Rusty’s point of view, his thoughts and feelings (as well as the manner in which Rusty voices his views that shows just how deep his lack of self esteem is) engage the reader so throughly that you forget about everything around you except for Rusty and his halting path through life.
Trust me when I say that just when you think that Rusty can’t break your heart anymore, then he says something that seems innocuous on the surface but is so shattering in the truth that it reveals that you find yourself breaking down yet again, grabbing for that second box of tissues while realizing that you are only on page 60 or so of a 256 page story. Rusty Baker is so incandescent in his innocence and beauty that I almost expected the pages to glow. He is textured, and glorious and unforgettable in every way.
But Rusty can’t make it alone, either in life or in the story. So the author has created a group of characters every bit as remarkable and amazing as Rusty himself, starting with Oliver Campbell. Oliver really is Rusty’s polar opposite from quick intelligence to his physical exterior. Oliver’s mixed race parentage is evident not only in his name but in his small stature, dark eyes and skin. Equally rich is the latin culture which overlays everything at home from his family’s food to their family rituals. Oliver is highly intelligent, generous of spirit and out about his sexuality. This is our and Rusty’s first introduction to Oliver:
Oliver showed up in early September of my senior year, slender, brown on brown on brown. Dark brown hair cut with long bangs around his narrow face, dark brown eyes with thick, thick lashes, and light brown skin. He slouched quietly in the back of Mr. Rochester’s English Literature class and eyed the rest of us with sort of a gentle amusement.
It’s that “gentle amusement” that draws Rusty in as well as Oliver’s acceptance of him no matter what Rusty might say or the way he struggles with everything in his life. Oliver is there to quietly shore Rusty up, giving him a look at families who love and support each other with a generosity Rusty has never had in his life. There is a quiet glow to Oliver that is never outshown by Rusty, they complement each other perfectly. I love Oliver and Oliver’s amazing dad, Arturo, both so alive that I absolutely believed in them as a family. And that goes for Estrella, Rusty’s housekeeper and surrogate mom, as well as Nicole, Rusty’s young sister just as starved for love and family as Rusty is. Nicole’s fragility is slowly revealed to Rusty and the reader as she becomes more of a presence in Rusty’s life. I know that sounds odd but when you read the story you realize just how compartmentalized Rusty’s family is and the impact of that structure upon the children.
OK, I realize I am doing it again, treating these characters as real people. Amy Lane is a superb storyteller. She creates worlds, situations and yes, characters that seem as real as any you might meet outside your door. They are flawed, they bleed as well as breathe. And when they hurt, you will hurt and bleed along with them. And that’s because somewhere those characters crossed the line from paper personas to people we love and care for as though they are family. I have the empty tissues boxes to prove it.
What characters seemed removed, incomplete and insubstantial? Well, that would be Rusty’s mother and father. And with good reason, because they feel that way to Rusty. His parents are cold, detached from family warmth and familial love, driven by their own ambition and control. By the author creating characters so coldly ephemeral and disengaged from their children, it helps to establish Rusty’s viewpoint as ours and it helps to understand his upbringing as well as Nicole’s.
There is laughter to be found among the pages to go with the river of tears you will shed for this amazing boy crying out for love and understanding. And the reader will celebrate the happiness that Rusty (and Oliver) find together after all the obstacles have been surmounted. I found myself, exhausted, red faced and snotty, surrounded happily by empty boxes of tissues at 3am and promptly wanted to do it all over again.
If I had a minuscule quibble with this story, it would be with the title. I would have loved it if the title would have been free of holiday references. Why? Because I am afraid that at any other time of the year readers unfamiliar with either Amy Lane or this story might relegate it to the Christmas story genre instead of “the must read at any time of year’ category it so deserves. But that is a wispy sort of quibble, lacking any substance and disappearing as we speak.
I loved, loved Christmas Kitsch. It is heartwarming as well as heartrending. It is as joyous as it is poignant! And I will read it again and again because that’s what I do with comfort reads with characters who are real to me and dear to my heart. I am sure you will feel the same, so grab it up and start reading. Have that tissue box handy, you will need it. And as a extra bonus you will be helping LGBT youth in need as well. This is a Highly Recommended, Best of 2013 or any year. Don’t pass it by!
Cover art by LC Chase is soft and lovely.
20% of all proceeds from this title are donated to the Ali Forney Center in New York, whose mission “is to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning (LGBTQ) youth from the harm of homelessness, and to support them in becoming safe and independent as they move from adolescence to adulthood.” To learn more about this charity or to donate directly, please visithttp://www.aliforneycenter.org
Riptide Publishing’s Home for the Holiday Series