All quotes and references are from Wranglestone, by Darren Charlton, unless otherwise stated.
“Clock it. Kill it. Rid the world of it.”
This review is long overdue. I believe it was last year that, on a whim, I picked up Wranglestone. Prior to that, and for about half a decade, I’d been unable to focus long enough to finish a novel. I read Wranglestone from cover to cover in three days.
I could not put it down. I found myself reaching for it in the middle of my work shift to read a paragraph here and there. When I reached the end, I was hit with that empty feeling you get when your favourite series that’s been on for a decade suddenly comes to its finale. Don’t let that deter you, though, because Darren Charlton is working on a sequel, which I could not be more excited about.
The book advertises itself as a YA “Brokeback Mountain meets the Walking Dead”. I can’t speak on the latter, but I’d argue that Wranglestone has little in common with Brokeback Mountain. Sure, you’ve got your two gay leads riding horses in the American wilderness, but that’s about where the similarities end.
While admittedly beautifully written and historically significant, Brokeback Mountain leans heavily on the trauma angle, on the star-crossed lovers tragically torn apart by homophobia and internalised shame. Even more so in the movie adaptation, which lacks the matter-of-fact simplicity of Proulx’s prose to tone down the melodrama. When I exited the movie theatre back in 2005, a very closeted queer teen, I remember glancing uncomfortably at the two upper class women in the next row, crying in their tissues and discussing the beauty of what they’d just witnessed as if it provided them with something worryingly close to catharsis. I remember thinking to myself: “Here’s the target audience.”
“You’re too much for me, Ennis, you son of a whoreson bitch. I wish I knew how to quit you.”
(Brokeback Mountain, Annie Proulx)
Brokeback Mountain is not for us, but Wranglestone?
There was friendship waiting to come in from the cold. But it was more than that. There was closeness. Unbound possibility. Peter unlocked the window behind his eyes and quietly let him in.
Wranglestone is for us. It is for us and by us. It’s obvious from the get-go that Darren Charlton wrote this for himself, for the kid he was, and for us.
The lead, Peter, tugged at my heartstrings in all sorts of subtle ways. He sparked that quiet gasp of recognition, of kinship, that I would have given anything for as a teen.
“You don’t want to mend a pair of white socks with black cotton if you can really help it, but anything will do really.”
Here’s this 15-year-old kid who falls short on pretty much everything that you typically expect in a post-apocalypse world teeming with the Restless Dead. Peter isn’t outdoorsy. He’s not a gifted hunter, a strong lumberjack, or a natural yet reluctant leader. Instead he sews pillows for the community, scolds his dad for leaving underwear strewn about the shack, and freezes in fear when confronted with horrifying events. You know, like a person.
He looked down at the thing’s black legs and felt the warmth of his own piss seep into his groin, helpless to do anything about it.
We’ve already seen the survivor teen who’s had to grow up too fast in a cruel world, and isn’t that tragic? We’ve seen the Katnisses (The Hunger Games) and the Ellies (The Last of Us). Peter’s just… well… “He’s just too damn nice!” Which is exactly what makes him the perfect protagonist for this unusual zombie horror. His curiosity, thoughtfulness and empathy drive the story to the exact place it needs to go.
Then there’s Cooper, the boy Peter’s been watching from afar.
“Reckon the forest is waking.”
It would have been easy to make him a traditional cowboy, tough and grumpy and impatient with Peter’s lack of survival skills, attractive because of his ruggedness and attitude. Possibly with a touch of internalised homophobia. Think of the glorious turmoil opportunities.
Ennis would not then embrace him face to face because he did not want to see or feel that it was Jack he held.
(Brokeback Mountain, Annie Proulx)
Aaaand once again, Wranglestone side-steps the cliché. Cooper never displays any hint of edginess. He’s attractive because he’s self-aware, intelligent, and very, very alive.
“It’s the planet, Peter,” he said quietly. “You feel the planet.”
No needless drama or contrived miscommunication between the two boys, either, but Darren Charlton does take the time in his fast-paced adventure to highlight clashes of class and origin within this small reconstructed community. Occasionally, Cooper voices insecurities about his lack of education or his working-class background. There is something deeply touching about two teens discovering each other, both a little scared of being judged, both fumbling a bit.
“I shouldn’t have corrected your grammar,” said Peter.
At its core, Wranglestone is a story of discovery and acceptance. It’s got all the warmth and humanity that’s often missing from post-apocalyptic settings. All the softness and restraint that’s usually the first thing to go when survival is on the line. The book is gorgeous as much as it is scary, and it does get quite scary (if you’re sensitive to gore and death, I’d read with caution).
“Nothin’! Just wanted to hear your name is all.”
I grew up with Harry Potter. Now, at the ripe age of 31, I wish to hell I’d gotten to grow up with Wranglestone instead.