Book Review: Last Summer Boys

Here’s the setup: Jack’s oldest brother, Pete, is turning 18 soon — which means he’ll likely be drafted to fight in Vietnam. Unbeknownst to anyone except his cousin Frankie, Jack devises a plan to keep Pete safe and at home

Cousin Francis said come nighttime he could smell the fires in his city.

Not like that sweet woodsmoke scent me and my brothers love so much, but an awful, eye-watering sting in the air of burning brick and rubber and roofing tar. Wind blew that terrible smell all the way to his bedroom window from the West Lake housing projects where the fires burned and had been burning since sundown the day Reverend King was killed. Seven days straight the riots lasted, and on the morning of the seventh day the soldiers came, came and stayed. It went on like that for weeks, until the day Francis’s father came up to his room to tell him he’d be coming to stay with us for that summer of 1968.

Francis did not like that one bit.

Last Summer Boys by Bill Rivers just shot to the top of my favorite books that I’ve read this year.

Here’s the setup: Jack’s oldest brother, Pete, is turning 18 soon — which means he’ll likely be drafted to fight in Vietnam. Unbeknownst to anyone except his cousin Frankie, Jack devises a plan to keep Pete safe and at home after Jack hears an offhand remark in the town barbershop: “If you’re famous, you don’t have to go to war.”

Pete and Will, the middle brother, have plans to go searching for a crashed fighter jet that was never found. Jack and Frankie hope to make Pete famous by finding that jet, but first they have to convince Pete and Will that they’re strong and brave enough to tag along. And as the back cover reads: “But with a greedy developer determined to flood their valley, a beautiful girl occupying his middle brother’s attentions, a wild motorcycle gang causing trouble in town, and a disturbed neighbor setting fires, Jack realizes it isn’t just Pete who needs saving.

Last Summer Boys is a coming-of-age tale filled with adventure, brotherhood, family, patriotism, loyalty, courage, innocence, first love, small-town scuffles, and David-and-Goliath battles to save (and savor) life in rural Pennsylvania.

In telling the story of the Elliots, Rivers taps into a simpler time that nowadays few actually lived, but that all of us have felt and experienced in some way. This book took me back to my own childhood in Pennsylvania, and the first time I saw films like Stand By Me or The Goonies.

As soon as I finished it, I handed it to my wife and said, you have to read this. (And, I’ll absolutely be gifting it to my brother).

A few final remarks:

Don’t be fooled by the opening lines. While the backdrop is the late 1960s and the broader events of that time do effect the family, this is a small-town story. It’s not a political novel or anything like that.

This one’s super accessible — a great book for avid readers or guys that only occasionally read. And at the same time, it doesn’t read like young adult fiction. Rivers nails the balance of telling a very real story but through the eyes of a teenage boy. To me, lines like this show that perfectly: “Still, it is strange, to think of your older brother kissing a girl. It’s just something I ain’t ever thought of before. Anna May is pretty and all … but to kiss her?” And they make me laugh.

Lastly, this is probably no surprise, but it’s important to state: this is a wholesome story. That sounds cliche, but you won’t find foul language, sex, violence, etc.

And if all of that doesn’t convince you to pick up the book. I have an ace in the hole: Archbishop Chaput said this about it:

“Those seeking a reprieve from our confused and callous culture will find something much more important here: a heartwarming, authentically human call to hold truth, family, and our common dignity—no matter the cost. In witnessing one brother’s struggle to save another, we remember how, in every age, love renews our wounded world.”

So if you don’t like it, talk to him.

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