Scoundrel Time

In Defense of Reluctant Knights and Farm Boys

During my pre-teen years growing up in Austin, Minnesota, the SPAM (the canned meat product, not the computer kind) capital of the world and 100 miles south of Minneapolis, there were no books in the public library or my school library about what it means to be a gay boy.At least I wasn’t aware of any. The books that would later prove formative for me—The Front Runner, The Lord Won’t Mind, Dancer from the Dance, A Boy’s Own Story, many others—I wouldn’t discover until college, after I’d left Austin for the Twin Cities and was trying to come to terms with being a gay man. But in those earlier years, I had to navigate life as a “fem” (the prevailing term used for suspected gay boys at the time) without any helpful literary models. While being bullied and trying to understand my attraction to other boys, I was searching for a book that might help explain myself to me.

Then, in the sixth grade, I discovered a novel in the library (I’m not sure if it was the public library or my school library–the place and the title are long since forgotten). It was set in Arthurian times, and it told the story of a quiet, solitary, and “gentle” (medieval speak for “fem”?) boy who would rather read books than be a knight and fight battles, and who was bullied and ostracized for his choices. Somewhat predictably, he eventually finds his courage, fights nobly, and is proclaimed a hero, and everyone feels terrible for having been so mean to him. To me that was the least interesting part of the story, because I had no interest in ever being a hero myself, and if it meant giving up books, who would want that anyway? Nevertheless, I renewed that book at least three times so I could read it again and again. There was something in that character that spoke to me, even though life in Austin had about as much in common with medieval times as it did with life on the moon.

Looking back, I see that I was more like that boy than I realized at the time. I didn’t want to fight any battles either. In my life, that meant no games of kickball where, because of my lack of coordination combined with anxiety, I inevitably screwed up and cost my team the game. And no mile run around the school as part of the annual Presidential Fitness Test, when I was lapped by pretty much everyone else and grateful to finish under three minutes.

“Two fifty-eight,” I later told my brother. He was two years older and in the eighth grade, and for him the test I dreaded had always been a breeze, given his natural athletic ability. We often fought, as brothers do. He had a knack for pushing my buttons, but this time he just nodded. We both knew I could have done even worse.

At least I had books, and I would eventually have writing, even if I couldn’t throw or kick a ball, swing a bat or a golf club, or run fast (or slow). Fast forward a few decades, and I’m the author of two published books: Oranges, a linked short story collection that, like a lot of first books, was in many ways a retelling of my own life, and The Complicated Calculus (and Cows) of Carl Paulsen, a young adult novel about a gay teenager living on a struggling dairy farm in rural Minnesota who falls in love with the new boy in town.

As I worked on the novel over many years, I rewrote the story of that boy knight without even realizing it, and I added something extra. Most of the elements were there: the sense of “otherness,” the teasing and the bullying, the wish to be both included and left alone. The “extra” was, of course, the love interest in the form of another boy. I knew more than enough from my crushes and longings during my own adolescence to complete that part of the picture, the part that for me had been missing from the early formative story.

I’d spent many happy hours visiting the farms of relatives as a child, but I knew as much about making one’s living farming as I did about the day-to-day life of, well, a boy living in the 13th century. So how and why did I end up with a farm boy for my hero? Why not someone more like myself, a middle-class gay but closeted teenager growing up during the 1960s and 1970s in a meatpacking town close to the “big city,” but not close enough?

Writing my own story seemed, at least at first, to be the easier route. In my earliest notes for the novel, I tried to capture my adolescent self walking down the halls of my junior high school, keeping a wary eye out for the well-built bullies who both repulsed me and occupied my fantasy world, then going home to brood in front of the television and avoid my homework until it was time for supper. But something, a richness and a stronger sense of place and identity, it seemed, was missing. In short, the character needed another dimension, or at least more to do.

Changing the setting of the story solved the problem. I knew from my stints as an occasional visiting farm boy, running a farm was a lot of work. And what if the farm isn’t doing so hot? My character, Carl Paulsen, has a lot to worry about—not just about bullies and whether the possible boy of his dreams returns his feelings—but whether the family business is going to survive, and what will happen to his family if it doesn’t.

But there were other more compelling reasons why I put a farm kid at the center of the story.

It can be easy to forget that, despite the progress we’ve made, acceptance, understanding, and connection for LGBTQ+ kids living in small towns and rural communities is not a given, even in 2024. In these politically fraught and divisive times, one need only open the newspaper on any given day to find yet another story about picture books and middle grade and young adult novels with queer characters being stripped from the shelves of libraries in both large and small communities. In some places, libraries that choose to make LGBTQ+-themed books available for children and young adults have faced a drastic and impossible choice: remove those books or face defunding. It is a tragedy for all queer youth no matter where they live, and a disturbing step backwards, but even more so for those living in small, rural, politically conservative areas with even less access to supportive communities and resources.

It can also be easy to frame this debate as a “blue” vs. “red” issue by assuming that attempts to ban books are more likely to occur in more conservative states, while LGBTQ+-themed books can be deemed “safe” in more liberal states. But even in the blue state where I’m grateful to live, discussions about whether to remove certain books are occurring, and not just in libraries in smaller and rural communities. Indeed, I frequently wonder whether (and perhaps even when) my own young adult novel will become a topic of discussion in the book banning debate, given its exploration of sexuality and the relationship between two teenage boys. Will it be banished from the shelves by those who think they know what teens should and shouldn’t read?

In light of these troubling developments, it’s more vital than ever to keep telling the stories of LGBTQ+ youth, especially those who don’t live in urban areas. There are many, many fine young adult novels out there about the lives and experiences of urban queer youth. There are far fewer stories that feature queer youth living in rural communities. A search of the holdings of my home library, the St. Paul Public Library, for young adult books about farm life or rural life yields only a handful of results. And in another large library database that I consult frequently, you can search for urban fiction for teens but there is no corresponding method of locating rural fiction. I worry that these stories may go the way of the small family farm, diminishing their already limited presence in the young adult literature landscape. Hence my decision to create Carl Paulsen (and his cows), to tell a story that might help readers like Carl feel seen, to know that their stories are being told.

I’m sure this doesn’t make me the least bit unique among writers, but I like knowing where my books are out in the world, whether that means seeing a copy or two on my neighborhood bookstore shelves, or even knowing that, with a few clicks, a book I wrote can land in a reader’s mailbox in a matter of days. But nothing compares, at least to me, to knowing that my work is in a library. Is that because it feels a little like immortality? A bookstore can decide not to carry your books, or send them back to the distributor when they don’t sell, or worst of all, your books can go out of print. But a library seems like as close to “forever” as I’m going to get as a writer.

Both of my books are available at the Austin Public Library in my hometown. I’m particularly proud that the book I wrote for young adults is on those shelves. I don’t yet know if it’s available in any of the school libraries in town, but I hope so. I often wonder how things might have been different for me had a book like mine been there when I was 15 years old, unsure of who I was and why I felt the way I did, and scared about what my life was going to be. But since it wasn’t there for me, I told a story that I hope will help someone else, someone who was like me at that age, help them not only navigate their difference but celebrate it and mark their place in a world that may at times make doing that challenging, if not impossible.

In the nearly fifty years since I first came across the book about the reluctant boy knight, I’ve wracked my brain trying to remember the title or the author, to no avail. I’ve searched online, and in all sorts of library databases trying all sorts of terms and phrases to see if I might somehow stumble on it, but no such luck. If I could find it, I’d thank the author for the story, incomplete as it might have been, for the inspirational role it played, however incidental, in helping me to eventually tell Carl’s story and, in a way, mine as well.

More important, I’d like to thank the librarians, both past and present. I’m grateful for the librarian who thought to put the knight book on a shelf for me to find in the first place. And I’m grateful for the librarians of today, especially those who are under siege for doing the now even more complicated and difficult work of making sure that everyone’s stories are there, in the library, to be discovered.

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Gary Eldon Peter is the author of two works of fiction: Oranges, a linked short story collection, and the novel The Complicated Calculus (and Cows) of Carl Paulsen, which was named one of the best books of 2022 by National Public Radio. He has received numerous awards for his work, including the Gold Medal for LGBTQ+ fiction in the Independent Publisher Book Awards, the Minnesota Book Award, the Silver Award in the Foreword Reviews INDIE Book of the Year Awards for Young Adult Fiction, and the Whippoorwill Book Award for Rural Young Adult Literature. He is a faculty member at the University of Minnesota and is at work on his third book, a collection of personal essays.

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