Dead Ends is a book about an unlikely friendship. Dane is a bully and Billy D., the new kid in town, has Down Syndrome. Dane doesn’t think of himself as a bully. As far as he is concerned, he only hits those who deserve it, and never girls or Special Ed students. After all, he has standards. But he is just one detention away from suspension, and then expulsion, when he is offered a chance to redeem himself by helping Billy D.
Dane’s voice felt authentic. I liked the way Lange made me care about him as a character while still making it clear that he really was not a nice person. Dane is complex and honestly trying to figure things out. But when his palms start to itch, he reacts with his fists before taking time to think. Billy is also more than the simple, sweet Special Needs victim who needs someone to take care of him. It doesn’t take long before he is manipulating Dane to get what he wants. And what Billy D. wants is for Dane to help him find his father, a man Billy’s mother seems determined to keep away from Billy. Dane, who has never known his own father, is both fascinated and disturbed by Billy’s obsession.
In some ways, this is a book that plays to cliches. Dane is the misunderstood bully who is really a good kid at heart. He finds redemption when the adults pair him with the Special Needs kid and an unlikely friendship develops. But Lange manages to take the story beyond that limited trope to explore some real issues. Dane is, of course, angered by people he perceives as victimizing Billy. But he is also sophisticated enough to recognize that adults automatically view Billy as weak and a victim, something Dane finds equally infuriating because it strips Billy of his individuality. Billy, on the other hand, uses that attitude to manipulate those same adults. And Billy is not above lying to get what he wants.
By the end, the story started to feel a bit far-fetched, and things wrap up a bit too neatly for Dane. But by that point, I was so caught up in the characters that I didn’t mind. And the book ends with just enough uncertainty for Dane that it is clear his road back is not going to be an easy one. This book is interesting in the way it shows the perspective of a bully who really doesn’t quite get that he is a bully. Watching him come to see his actions through the eyes of others makes for interesting character development.
Fans of Lange’s earlier book, Butter, will not be disappointed. Dead Ends will also appeal to those who enjoy realistic, contemporary fiction. There’s even a touch of romance, though it definitely does not dominate the central story of two boys trying to find themselves in the process of trying to find their fathers.
(This review is of a digital Advance Copy from Bloomsbury Children’s Books through NetGalley.)