Flyway editor, Chris Wiewiora, reviews John Brandon’s, Cirtus County.
John Brandon focuses Citrus County, his second novel, on a trifecta of characters: Toby, an orphan and the track team’s solo pole-vaulter, who lives in the muck house of his drug-dealing uncle; Shelby, the new kid in school, shadowed by her mother’s death that lingers over her father and sister; and Mr. Hibma—Toby and Shelby’s geography teacher at the middle school—numbed by a routine of student presentations and bogus lectures.
As a fellow Floridian, I appreciate that Brandon sets Citrus County west of Orlando’s Disney developments and north of Tampa Bay’s beaches. Instead of trite lush sprawl and touristy hot spots, Brandon submerges his characters in cracked concrete, dried palm fronds, and thick, sticky heat. Unable to escape, Toby, Shelby, and Mr. Hibma take drastic actions to redefine themselves. Toby kidnaps Kaley, Shelby’s younger sister, but discovers that “whatever had been wrong seemed more wrong now.” Shelby, who doesn’t know of Toby’s transgression, develops a crush on his loner attitude and then acts out in school to get his attention. Mr. Hibma plots to murder Mrs. Connors–the English teacher next to his classroom who tells him that he needs to post class rules identical to the school rules, reminds him his shirts are wrinkled, and has a poster in her classroom with the word PERSISTANCE underneath a sailing ship.
Just as Kaley needs rescue, Mr. Hibma, Shelby, and Toby need to be saved from themselves. However, is there a hero in Citrus County? Brandon reveals the crux of this question—you survive things by making it through them, alone—when Mr. Hibma tries to assure, but ends up over-sharing with Shelby:
“We never know what’s going to screw us up,” he said. “We think it has to be glaring tragedies, but that’s not always the case.”
Mr. Hibma wasn’t sure where he was going with this. He was, to his own surprise, taking a stab at being profound and helpful:
“Sometimes the tragedies strengthen us in the end. They make us more ourselves, you know—concentrate us.”
Mr. Hibma, Shelby, and Toby’s lives are braided together in Citrus County. However, their redemptions occur separately. And so, Brandon gives his reader the relief of being able to exit Citrus County along with the grief of leaving the three characters behind.