In Stephen Harrigan’s big-hearted coming-of-age novel, LEOPARD IS LOOSE, five-year-old Grady’s tranquil world is upended when a leopard escapes from the nearby zoo. It’s 1952 and Grady and his 7-year-old brother Danny live with their widowed mother, Bethie, in a two-bedroom backyard apartment across a small patch of yard from her parents and siblings. For most of Grady’s life, the family compound has created a sanctuary where they could each heal from the devastating trauma of the war.
Grady’s father was a test pilot in WWII and passed away before he was born. His uncles, Emmett and Frank, are combat veterans who suffer from PTSD; but with the best intentions, they try to fill in the gap left by the boys’ father’s death. When a leopard escapes from his pen at the Oklahoma City Zoo, Grady and Danny persuade their uncles to join the throngs of gun-toting citizens trying to track it down. The new threat to the community reveals the dark underbelly of the segregated community and suddenly everything that Grady thought to be true and safe and good is imbued with a new sense of distrust.
Harrigan has an astonishing ability to embody the mind of his five-year-old protagonist. Many an author tips over into treacle when writing from a child’s perspective, but Harrigan is not one of them. He does this in part by telling the story from the perspective of seventy-year-old Grady, but we see everything through a child’s eye.
Grady is the soul of the novel, and his mother Bethie is the heart. I was moved by Grady’s untarnished love for her. His unwavering belief in her goodness is aptly conveyed when a tornado strikes the town, and a young man is hit by lightning. Bethie, a nurse who’d worked with trauma patients in the war, acts quickly to pull the young man to safety and apply life-saving measures, and Grady, Danny, and Bethie’s parents are witnesses to her heroism.
“The love of my mother was a feature of my world that I never gave a thought to. It was powerfully present but unremarkable as the ground we stood on. There was no beginning to it and no possibility that it could ever be withdrawn. But tonight, maybe for the first time, I recognized that I was privileged to be a recipient of it. I had been jealous when she had first called that stricken boy “honey,” and the fact that she had saved his life had made her seem the last hour or so oddly distant, a person who belonged not just to Danny and me anymore but threatened to belong to the whole world.”
Grady need not worry; Bethie’s embrace is big enough for all of them.
I recommend LEOPARD IS LOOSE for fans of character-driven fiction. Listen to my Superior Reads interview with Stephen Harrigan on January 27 at 7:00 pm, Saturday, January 29 at 6:00 am, or on the web at WTIP.org. This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.