The Paper Cowboy


Summary: Tommy is a good looking kid who is liked and followed by the kids at his school.  But what they don’t know is that he is hiding many secrets.  At home, his mother is prone to severe mood swings and Tommy has to help a great deal with his little sisters. When his older sister is severely burned in an accident, things go from bad to worse.  As Mary Lou, his only ally in the house, heals in the hospital,Tommy must take over Mary Lou’s early morning paper route and try to hold things together at home as his mother becomes more and more violent. Tommy lashes out, becoming a cruel bully at school, stealing from a neighborhood store, and even framing the store owner. 

Tommy dreams of being a cowboy, like the great Gary Cooper in the movie High Noon.  But instead, he is acting like one of the bad guys.  Is it too late for Tommy to make things right?   

Thoughts:  The Paper Cowboy is a powerful, authentic story of a young boy’s struggle to deal with a troubled home life and to figure out who he is in the process.  Levine adeptly pulls the reader into the fragile setting where everything depends on Tommy’s mother’s mood and his overwhelmed father has no idea how to handle the situation.  Levine develops a complex character in Tommy – he bravely withstands his mother’s abuse, tenderly protects his little sisters, and worries about the healing of his older sister; then the next day, he harshly treats kids at school, steals, and lies.  But, his inner struggle with his behaviors and the way he grows with each chapter provides hope and has the reader cheering for Tommy to do the right things. 

The historical backdrop of McCarthyism adds depth and interest to the novel.  Levine’s excellent connections between the boys’ bullying on the schoolyard to the adult targeting of alleged Communists allow for much thought and discussion. The theme of bullying is contrasted perfectly with the caring friendships that develop in the community once Tommy takes the time to truly get to know the people in his school and in his neighborhood.  

The Paper Cowboy is a thoughtful novel about acceptance, compassion, and overcoming life’s struggles. Inspired by the author’s father’s childhood, the book ends with interesting notes and photographs.  

Read The Paper Cowboy if you …  

  • enjoyed Kristin Levine’s previous novels
  • like engaging historical fiction that is well-researched and immediately transports you to a different place in time
  • have ever been a bully or the victim of a bully
  • are inspired by stories of characters overcoming difficult circumstances
  • enjoy books where the characters greatly develop and grow 
  • ever wanted to be a cowboy, a hero, or just one of the good guys