I’ve enjoyed many stories created by author Gene Gant and was excited to hear of his newest release, A Love Song For Mr. Dakota. Creating a story around a teenage crush on a young gay teacher is a tricky subject and how the fallout is handled when that type of attraction comes to light has all the makings for a pretty intense novel. While Gant’s book didn’t shy away from what we all know is a rather realistic and all too often actual scenario of a high school student crushing on their teacher, it did sometimes skim over the gritty details that accompany such an incident. However, this book got many things just right so I will forewarn you my review is a bit of a mixed bag overall.
Brodie Baker’s life hasn’t been really great for quite a while. Being fifteen and living with a father who he felt had abandoned his own wife and cut her off when she needed them the most definitely played into his anger toward his dad. But after yet another night where Brodie had to rescue his drunken mother and get her home safely to her apartment, even he realized that his mom was losing her battle with the bottle and life, in general. Worry, guilt, and anger ate at Brodie constantly. After a particularly embarrassing incident at his school, Brodie watched as kids he thought were his friends ridiculed and tore apart his mom and that was when he realized he could trust no one except his girlfriend, Fawn, and his best friend, Abe. Cutting everyone out of his life, Brodie ghosted through high school, alone and in pain, until he got a new English teacher, Mr. Dakota.
Now circumstances beyond his control lead to a perfect storm in Brodie’s life, which includes Fawn rejecting him, Abe having to suddenly leave town, and his mother nearly killing herself. Unwilling to trust or confide in his dad, Brodie takes a giant leap of faith and opens up to Mr. Dakota, only to discover that the young teacher has traveled his own lonely road and truly understands what Brodie is going through. Suddenly Brodie is questioning everything he has assumed all his life, including his own sexuality. Could he be gay? Is he falling in love with Mr. Dakota? All Brodie knows is that if he had failed at taking care of his mom, he wouldn’t let his teacher down—Mr. Dakota needs him and he is determined to show the man that he can be trusted to take care of him.
This novel delves into some pretty intense subject matter and does so very carefully. From Brodie’s crush and how it guides his actions, to the teacher’s own personal baggage and how it both allows him to be compassionate about Brodie’s circumstances, yet also make mistakes when it comes to allowing a student too much access into his teacher’s personal life, the book drew me in and held me captive. The story is chocked full of minor mistakes waiting to become devastating catastrophes. One thing I so appreciate about Gant’s writing style is his ability to nail down the voice of a teenager. In this case, Brodie’s thoughts and actions were spot on for a teenage boy whose home life was falling apart. His entire inner dialogue was so reflective of someone who hungered to be loved and needed and felt the weight of personal failure over and over—of not fitting in, of never being good enough, of being a social outcast due to his mixed heritage. My heart wept for this boy and everything he did as a result of his loneliness was wholly believable and felt completely natural. I also had the same reaction when it came to his best friend Abe and the interactions they had together. However the girlfriend, Fawn, and Mr. Dakota’s best friend, Sylvia, were a whole different matter.
The entire dynamic with Fawn was just a bit off for me. From her language, wanting to take a “break” from being Brodie’s girlfriend, to her actions later in the novel, her character felt forced and way too adult. I’ve taught high school kids for years and I don’t think I’ve ever heard them tell their boy/girlfriend that they want to take a break from the relationship for a while. Then for Fawn to completely cut Brodie off so suddenly without explanation was just so strange. That entire plot piece felt forced—made to fit so that Brodie would be truly alone which, in turn, forced him to be more open with Mr. Dakota. Speaking of which, the entire episode where Brodie crossed such a huge line by delving into Mr. Dakota’s past made me shake my head as well. Any teacher, young or seasoned, knows that a student trying to discover more about your private life and doing so with such fervor is a real warning sign to get your Principal involved, lest the kid develop some unwarranted and dangerous feelings for said teacher.
Then there was Sylvia, Mr. Dakota’s friend, and her blasé acceptance of this fifteen-year-old boy who she knew had a crush on her best friend. Surely she should have been warning Mr. Dakota to tread carefully and trying to discourage the kid, rather than inviting him into the house and then leaving him alone with her best friend to handle it. I get it—I do—this was fiction, but still if a writer is going to head down that path, they need to be careful they keep perspective on how this would be handled in real life. In the end, these variables began to throw me out of the story and make me shake my head at the train wreck that was so obviously going to happen. It was that blatant foreshadowing that took a novel that had been trying to delicately and carefully discuss a possible real life situation to a place where the story became just a bit cliché and predictable.
A Love Song For Mr. Dakota had some really outstanding moments in it, but it also swept away some of the bigger consequences and issues that both Mr. Dakota and Brodie were facing. In the attempt to make life better for his MC, the author cut away critical healing time and a more realistic resolution to some of the difficulties his characters were facing. Gene Gant is a great storyteller and I will definitely continue to read his work. As for this story, it left me wanting just a bit grittier realism and a little less happy ever after.
A review copy of this book was provided by Dreamspinner Press.