In a lot of ways, Cam Smith is a model kid. He’s putting himself through prep school, working hard, and getting excellent grades. His goal of getting into Princeton is so close he can taste it.
He also happens to be on the lam from his criminal family.
Cam’s real name is Skip O’Rourke, and the only reason he made it to prep school is that he secretly took some money promised to him by his late grandfather — money the rest of his family was convinced was rightfully theirs — ran away from them, and cut all ties. Or tried to. Soon after the story begins, Skip’s uncle and his mother catch up with him again, and they’re determined to pull him right back into the life he left behind. Unless he can figure out how to use their own tactics against him, it’s goodbye to Princeton, goodbye to his girlfriend, Claire, and goodbye to any hope of living a normal, crime-free life.
“Thieving Weasels” by Billy Taylor finds its protagonist in an unusual situation for a YA hero, and facing some very unusual dilemmas. But his voice is well-written and his struggle is a meritorious one. Skip is smart, resourceful, and experienced, but even he finds it difficult to penetrate his family’s plans or figure out how to fight back. But he’s had the chance to try living an ethical life, and he’s determined not to give it up.
As Cam tells us, “My family knew where I lived, what I looked like, and the intimate details of my good name [the fake identity he uses at school]. But what they didn’t know—although they thought they did—was me. They assumed that since I’d stopped scamming and stealing that I was weak, but it was exactly the opposite. In the years I’d been away I’d learned that honesty, perseverance, and all the rest of that Campfire Girl stuff they looked down upon was real.”
On the plus side, “Thieving Weasels” takes evil seriously and doesn’t try to pretty it up or tone it down. The O’Rourkes aren’t criminals with a sentimental streak or criminals with hearts of gold — they’re just criminals, period. They’re driven by greed and selfishness (and, to a lesser extent, lust), and they couldn’t care less what’s best for Skip; they only want to use him for their own ends, and they resent his attempts to escape their control. At one point his own mother, having faked a stroke, nearly strangles him to death in the back of an ambulance.
Ultimately, as Skip points out, his family isn’t even that good at making money from their scams and swindles — they just scam people because it’s their nature. The book shows a strong understanding of what’s often called the banality of evil.
On the other hand, the presence of good isn’t as strong as the presence of evil. Skip’s determination to get out and live a good life is commendable, and one of the strongest points of the book. It’s easy for the reader to root for him to achieve this worthy goal. But he has to make some considerable ethical sacrifices to acheive that goal, at times descending almost to his family’s level. It can be argued that he has no other choice, but it weakens what moral tone the book has. And at times Skip engages in reckless behavior for no good reason at all, as in the climactic scene where he and his cousin try to settle their differences by stealing cars and attempting to smash each other up on the highway!
The content, befitting the subject, is not exactly ideal for the target age group. Aside from all the criminal activity, there’s frequent profanity, some violence, and plenty of drinking, smoking, and drug references. There’s sexual activity (Skip and Claire have sex at least once, and his relatives take him to a bar where the waitresses do sexual “dances” for the customers). The moral atmosphere, in short, is not exactly healthy. And while, again, that’s probably par for the course in a book about a family of petty thieves, it all seems like a little much for high schoolers. While the heist genre can be a lot of fun as long as the reader is mature enough to distance it from reality, there are examples of it (like Gordon Korman’s fun and clever novels, for example) that I would think are much more suitable for this age group.
Image copyright Dial Books. Review copy obtained through First to Read.
Gina Dalfonzo is editor of BreakPoint.org and Dickensblog.