Reading the Northwest: Crutcher’s darkly humorous stories can’t match teens’ reality

Chris Crutcher, photographed at home on July 19, recently released “Losers Bracket.” (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Chris Crutcher’s fiction for young adults often features children facing troubling situations informed by his decades spent as a community therapist in Spokane. His latest book, “Losers Bracket,” has a teenage protagonist whose drug-addicted mother has lost her parental rights and whose slightly older sister is headed down the same path.

But if Crutcher’s fictional characters have problems, they’re nothing compared to what he’s seen in real life. In the past year alone Crutcher has found himself counseling students who survived high school shootings, first at Freeman High School and then at Marjory Stoneman Douglas in Florida.

He says the experiences left him inspired by the courageous students, but angry and saddened about the state of U.S. gun laws. He wrote several impassioned Facebook posts, including one criticizing local politicians and calling for a ban on assault weapons.

Crutcher grew up in Cascade, Idaho, a small town “where everyone hunted,” he says. “But you could only fire one shot with one pull of the trigger,” he says. “The thing I thought about walking out of Stoneman Douglas and having been at Freeman was: It was the gun that was the difference.”

In May, Crutcher spent two days at Stoneman Douglas speaking to students along with nearly two dozen other authors brought in by the school’slibrarian, Diana Haneski, who sheltered students in the library during the shooting. On the second day of the literary event in Florida, another school shooting happened 1,000 miles away as a student opened fire at a high school near Houston, killing 10 and wounding 13 others. At Douglas, some traumatized students rushed back to their classrooms to be with teachers and friends.

“I’ve got a wristband that says ‘Never Again,’ and it’s suddenly obsolete,” Crutcher said.

“Losers Bracket” is the 15th book for Crutcher, who for years wrote mainly in the evenings after coming home from his work as a child protection advocate and therapist with Spokane Community Health Center. His experience as a therapist and educator gives his work a level of realism unusual in fiction for young adults, for which he has been widely recognized. Among his many awards are intellectual freedom citations from the National Council for Teachers of English and the National Coalition Against Censorship.

He says his recent experiences spurred him to turn back to an unfinished novel titled “Some Guy,” about the long-term after effects of a school shooting. The idea for the story took root after the 1996 shooting at a middle school in Moses Lake. Since then, sadly, he has had many more examples to draw from.

Despite the wrenching situations he often depicts in his novels, Crutcher aims to inject plenty of humor into his fiction. “I know I’m going down a pretty dark path, and if I can keep you laughing, I can keep you reading,” he says.

That comes through in “Losers Bracket,” in the sardonic, seen-it-all voice of Annie Boots. She is Crutcher’s first female protagonist, and her narration helps lighten sad circumstances, such as the uncertain future of a 5-year-old nephew, who is increasingly unsafe in the care of his young mother.

In “Losers Bracket,” 17-year-old Annie has been in a foster home for years but works desperately to arrange spending time with her biological family, much to the displeasure of her foster father. She goes so far as to intentionally lose basketball games so her mother has more chances to see her play as she makes her way through the losers bracket of the title.

Crutcher says he saw similar scenes play out often with children of all ages in his years as a therapist.

“You would see these really dysfunctional families – families with drugs involved where it would just be terrifically dangerous for the family to be put back together,” he said. “But the ache to get back to that original family was astonishing to me.”

“Losers Bracket” also addresses a foster system that can seem unequal to the task of supporting so many troubled children. The Howard family that raises Annie is far from perfect, with an angry, controlling father whose own marriage is on the verge of coming apart. Still, Annie has a safe place to live, Crutcher points out.

At 72, Crutcher no longer actively works as a therapist, but he stays in touch with many former clients and has no shortage of material. One forthcoming novel, “Camp Infinity,” promises to be on the lighter side, featuring a writing “prodigy” who secretly has been relying on a friend to do his writing. That book was inspired in part by Crutcher’s own history as a “straight-C student” who recycled his older brother’s high school papers rather than do the work himself.

Crutcher also is working on a non-fiction book that will feature the real stories behind heroic characters he has known and sometimes fictionalized. Some of the students he met at Stoneman Douglas might well make it into the book, he says.

Summer Stories

The Northwest Passages Book Club presents an evening showcasing Summer Stories, The Spokesman-Review’s annual short-fiction series. Local authors Alexis Smith, Stephanie Oakes, Kris Dinnison and Shawn Vestal will share new fiction Wednesday around this year’s theme, “The Road Trip.”

Come early to enjoy summer tunes, burgers and a glass of wine at The Spokesman-Review building, 999 W. Riverside Ave., and the adjacent Terra Blanca Wine Bar. Doors open at 5:30 p.m., and the event starts at 7 p.m. Tickets are free and available at Spokane7tickets.com.

Other upcoming book club events include:

Sept. 24: Pulitzer Prize-winning Portland author Eli Saslow discusses “Rising Out of Hatred.”

Oct. 3: “100 Things to Do in Spokane Before You Die” debuts. Written by the staff of The Spokesman-Review, this is a bucket list for adventure.

Oct. 10: Mystery writer Craig Johnson shares “Depth of Winter,” the latest installment in the popular Sheriff Walt Longmire series.

Nov. 29: Renowned travel author Rick Steves talks about “Travel as a Political Act.”

Ticket information and updates will be available at spokesman.com/bookclub.

Mystery in the vineyard

The Yakima Valley is the setting for “Murder in the Melting Pot” by Jane Isenberg, a mystery set in motion when an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, in town to certify grapes as kosher, is bludgeoned to death. The murder poses problems for the book’s protagonist, Miranda Breitner, who is running from her past but coming face to face with her own Jewish roots.

New take on race relations

“White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo has struck a chord among the region’s readers and is listed among the latest nonfiction best-sellers on the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association list. The author, a former professor of multicultural education, examines the forces that make conversations about race so difficult.

Martin Wolk is a writer and editor who enjoys reading contemporary fiction and memoirs. He has been a correspondent for Reuters and msnbc.com, among other publications. He writes The Spokesman-Review’s monthly “Reading the Northwest” column.