More than just a love story between a poor boy and a rich girl, Gentlehands is the coming of age of a young man in the late 1970s.’  M.E. Kerr was awarded the Edwards Award in 1993, noted as “one of the pioneers in realistic fiction for teenagers.”‘  So how has her work held up?

M.E. Kerr
Published 1978

Buddy’s family is lower middle-class.’  He lives year-round in a Long Island town that attracts summer residents.’  He doesn’t know much about the finer things in life–until he meets and falls for Skye Pennington.’  Seeing the wealth that Sky lives in makes Buddy self-conscious.’  So he starts spending time with his grandfather, an elegant, aristocratic man.’  While his parents aren’t happy about Buddy spending time with his grandfather, or his relationship with Skye, Buddy doesn’t care.’  He likes who he could be when he’s with Skye or his grandfather.’  But then, allegations are made that Buddy’s grandfather served in the SS during World War II–and that he is the Nazi officer ironically known as Gentlehands.’  Buddy is left numb by this blow, unable to believe these accusations about his grandfather.’  By the end of the summer, his grandfather has fled from the authorities and Buddy has broken up with Skye.’  And now Buddy is different from the boy he was.

Love and loss combine to change Buddy, making him grow up.’  He was already different from his parents, who are pedestrian and small-minded.’  Being exposed to the luxuries that Skye enjoys, and being taught about wine, opera and clothes by his grandfather, make Buddy into a young man who wants more than what his parents have.’  You get the sense that Buddy will move on and move away, and he won’t look back on this climactic summer.’  But it has left its mark on him, and he’s no longer a happy-go-lucky kid.

The accusation that Buddy’s grandfather was a Nazi is like a bombshell.’  Researched and exposed by a relative of one of Gentlehands’ victims, it can be hard to believe that Buddy’s grandfather is capable of such actions.’  how could the man who rescues a raccoon from a steel trap be the same person who sicked attack dogs on Jews?’  Why would the man who loved opera use it against Italian Jews, playing arias to create sadness?’  We don’t learn the answers to these questions; Buddy’s grandfather remains enigmatic.’  But the reaction to the allegations, and Buddy’s realization that they are true, changes Buddy’s memories of his grandfather.’  Just like his relationship with Skye, his grandfather taints the memory of that summer.

There are some negatives to this novel.’  Other than Buddy and his grandfather, the other characters are unrealistic and flat.’  Skye, with her never-ending chatter, comes across as a shallow, empty rich girl.’  Buddy’s parents are utterly pedestrian, unable to look beyond their own feelings and connect with Buddy.’  Most of the supporting characters are exaggerated and stereotyped.’  Thankfully, Buddy and his grandfather are more realistic characters: more grounded and less melodramatic.

At only 183 pages, Gentlehands moves along at a quick pace, with little subtlety in its storytelling.’  Now that we’ve gotten used to YA novels weighing in at three hundred pages or more, the fast pace is even more noticeable.’  I would have liked more time with Buddy’s grandfather, so that his past would be a truly shocking revelation.’  And with a slower pace, a more believable relationship between Skye and Buddy might have been achieved.’  A reflective, slower pacing would have helped an already-good story become better.

For the sake of the story of Buddy’s grandfather, and for Buddy’s voice, give Gentlehands a try.’  But you might be left somewhat unsatisfied, like I was.

About Melissa Rabey

I'm a teen librarian for a library system in Maryland. I became a librarian because I love books, I love technology, and I wanted to connect people with those two things. I'm happy that I get to do all this and even more.

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