Welcome to my new feature called Forbidden Reads! Join me in celebrating your freedom to read. My goal for this soon-to be- regular monthly feature is to highlight challenged and/or banned books from each literary audience: children, YA, and adult. Not only will I be doing a review of the book, I will also include information as to where and why the book was challenged/banned. Today I'll be reviewing Robert Cormier's controversial YA suspense novel, Tenderness, which was published in 1997.
Description (from Goodreads): Eighteen-year-old Eric has just been released from juvenile detention for murdering his parents. Now he's looking for tenderness--tenderness he finds in killing girls. Fifteen-year-old Lori has run away from home again. Emotionally naive and sexually precocious, she is also looking for tenderness--tenderness that she finds in Eric. Will Lori and Eric be each other's salvation or destruction?
Review: Cormier is known for his gritty novels. His most widely known book, The Chocolate War, is a staple in YA literature and unapologetically looks at the important issue of bullying which we are still struggling today. Tenderness is a mesmerizing albeit extremely disturbing plunge into the mind of a psychopathic teen killer. The book is compelling, short, and quick to the point. The story is simple as it follows two teens who are despearately searching for something called tenderness.
Eric Poole is handsome, clean cut, and with a vulnerability that plays well before the cameras. He is about to be released from the juvenile facility where he has spent three years for killing his mother and stepfather, who were believed to have abused him. The fact that he murdered his parents without provocation and has also killed and sexual assaulted a few girls (a fact that is certainly known only to Eric himself). Veteran cop Jake Proctor is almost positive that Eric is the serial killer, but he has no hard evidence to prove his suspicions. When Proctor's covert endeavors to obstruct Eric's release fail, the teen walks out of the facility, glorying in his cleverness and in great anticipation of renewing his obsessive search for "tenderness."
The really suspense begins with Eric carefully avoiding controversy until he can escape to another town and Proctor anxiously watching and waiting for the young man to make a mistake. Neither villain nor cop suspects that Eric's undoing will come in the form of 15-year-old runaway Lori, who sees her own desire for affection mirrored in Eric's haunted eyes. Lori is a complicated character. My reactions toward her varied from a selfish, vulnerable, obsessive child to a sexually precocious and an intuitive young woman. A victim of sexual harassment and abuse, Lori blatantly and aggressively uses her sexuality to get what she wants. Like Eric, she is obsessed with a search for genuine affection, and she's every bit as committed to pursuing it.
While I was engrossed in the story, I didn't think this book was textured enough to satisfy today's YA readers. The chapters that switch from Eric and Lori's point of views aren't labeled though their voices are clearly distinct. There are, however, a number of intriguing psychological underpinnings that made me pause and think. There are strong hints of incest as we get a clear focus of Eric's fixation for his young victims: girls who have long, dark hair, medium height, just like his mother's. Sex, though never explicit, plays a big role in both Lori's and Eric's behaviors.
Even though we don't get a whole lot of background to the story, particularly with Eric's parents, both main characters are fully developed. Though the characters are introduced separately, their perspectives smoothly transition once they finally meet. As readers, we know that Lori's time might be quickly shorten when she meets and spends time with Eric, but I never expected the book's final twist. The irony of Eric and Lori's ends is searing. The idea that humanity is a switch that can be turned off and on by will is the most disquieting aspect of the novel. It is also what ultimately makes the book so dark, seductive, and well forbidding.
Rating: 3.5 stars
Why it was challenged: According to Marhall University Library, the book was challenged in 2003 at the Fairfax (VA) school libraries by a group called Parents Against Bad Books in Schools for "profanity and descriptions of drug abuse, sexually explicit conduct and torture".
Words of Caution: There is some profanity in the book, but nothing that isn't spoken in a PG-13 movie. Lori mentions that her mother has an alcohol and drug problem, which highlights her isolation and the way she behaves. She is harassed by her mother's boyfriends who don't disguise their lecherous desire for her. There are scenes of sexual suggestiveness: In the beginning we see Lori's mother's current boyfriend brushes against her. Later a hitchhiker who Lori allows him to kiss and fondle her, but these incidents aren't graphically depicted but give enough of a set-up for readers to fill in the details. While difficult to read, I though these scenes were necessary to show how sexualized Lori has become without really thinking about what she is doing which is the point that Cormier is trying to make. Her opinions of adults never go beyond their sexual desires because that is all that she has known. As mentioned in the review, Eric is a serial killer and there is obviously going to be violence associated with him. We are briefly told that he strangles his victims and there are clear suggestions that he sexually assaults his victims. In almost all popular adult books, the author spends time detailing the act of crime. Cormier, however, spends more time focusing on Eric's psychological state. Due to the book's mature themes, I would feel comfortable in recommending this book to older teens (i.e. Grades 10 and up).
If you like this book try: Right Behind You by Gail Giles, The Killer's Cousin by Nancy Werlin