In local author Keith Gray’s latest novel, a group of small-town teenagers shed their childhoods as a tree sheds its leaves.
While Vienna was in the grip of the first lockdown, a group of local writers banded together to write stories, meeting every Wednesday to share their work in a group video chat. A virtual campfire circle, they listened avidly to story after story, week after week, their faces lit by their screens.
These sessions proved to be fertile ground, providing local writer Keith Gray the initial seed for his latest novel – The Climbers. A novel aimed at young adults, Gray creates a compelling portrait of the growing pains experienced by a small town’s teenagers, centered around a group whose passion is climbing trees: Sully, Mish, Zoe, Marvin and Harvey.
Sully is the fastest and best climber in the town – or so he tells the new kid, Nottingham, who demonstrates he has “reach” within the first few paragraphs of the story. And so, a three-day rivalry commences that will have both risking life and limb, with calamitous consequences for the entire town.
Climbing to the top
The objects of their obsession are the Big Five, standing tall at the back of the local park; the reward for being the first to climb one is a spectacular view and the honor of naming the tree. Twisted Sister, Crazy Ash Bastard, Spider Trap, and the Double-Trunker have all been conquered. Sully is determined his legacy will be to ascend the final tree and call it Sullivan’s Skystabber. Cocky and self-centered as only a fifteen-year-old can be, Sully has always loved climbing, which allows him to “get above everything down here.” As the reader knows, Sully’s home life is strained, with a cash-strapped single mom struggling to do her best and an older brother that is hung over more often than not. But with new arrival Nottingham eager to gain recognition, suddenly Sully’s status as “the best climber in town” is very much in jeopardy.
In addition, Mish, Sully’s best friend and “tree-climbing support crew,” is changing, more interested in pursuing her A-levels than pointing out the best branches from the ground. Her dream is to go to university, make something of herself and leave their village behind – something Sully finds difficult to grasp amidst the turmoil caused by his challenger, Nottingham.
Gray offers a compassionate look at teenagers as they come to realize there is more than just them in life. As they start thinking beyond themselves and about each other, bonds are formed and friendships strengthened. No one learns that lesson harder and better than Sully. As painful as it is, he grows and learns during these three days.
However, there’s more than just compassion for the characters at the heart of this book: The publisher, Barrington Stoke, wants to break down barriers to reading, with everything from the paper color, typeface, language, and sentence structure specifically designed to make their books as accessible as possible, regardless of one’s individual struggles.
In that respect, The Climbers is a good fit. Gray writes with warmth and grit, showing the home lives that drive two people to the treetops with tact and sympathy – even if they would be better off staying firmly on the ground. He writes about real-world teenagers with wit and humanity, reminding us of the foibles which drive us at every stage.
Keith Gray’s debut novel Creepers was published when he was only 24 and was shortlisted for the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. Gray lives with his family in Vienna, Austria, where he co-founded the writer development community Kulturverein: Sunday Writers’ Club.