David and Jonathan by Cynthia Voigt is a story about a friendship tested.
Jonathan and Henry are long-time childhood friends. The bulk of the story is set when the boys are 15 during the year Jonathan’s cousin David came to live with his family. Jonathan’s family is Jewish and the time period is the 1950’s. They thought all of their family had been killed by the Nazi’s during the war until David was found. David has spent many years in Displaced Persons camps and psychiatric hospitals often on suicide watch. His doctors think that some time outside of a hospital with a family may help, but he is never allowed to be alone for fear of what he might do.
Henry’s family is a moneyed, old New England family. His grandmother lives in the family mansion in Boston while Henry lives on Cape Cod with his mother and his father, a composer who is not seen as successful enough to be a satisfactory marriage.
Henry is attracted to David and terrified by this attraction. David picks up on this and adds it to his reasons to hate Henry. The tension between the two is open and places a serious strain on the friendship between Henry and Jonathan. Throughout the year Henry tries to maintain his friendship with Jonathan in spite of Jonathan’s neglect and David’s venom. Voigt is not shy about making it clear that Henry’s feelings towards both David and Jonathan are in part homoerotic, though Henry never comes to terms with this in the novel. It’s difficult to see why Henry would make such an effort to maintain his friendship with Jonathan if it didn’t involve a crush aspect. They are so mean to him at times, that I wanted to smack some sense into Henry and tell him to drop both David and Jonathan and move on with his life.
Ms. Voight does a fine job developing the complexities of her three main characters. They are all three well drawn and fully three dimensional. I found them to be incredibly smart and well read for 15-year-olds. (David is 20, actually.) This began to distract from the overall believability of the novel after a while. The minor characters are sketched clearly enough to have lives of their own. It was refreshing to see both had intact sets of parents and that all four of these characters played a role in the story. (I’ve begun to suspect that so many young adult novels feature single or absent parents because the writer is not able to develop a full set or that the publisher is not willing to devote pages to characters other than the teenage protagonists.) The novel was written in 1992 but it feels like an earlier work. Perhaps because of the setting, the novel feels like it was written in the early 1970’s when young adult novels typically took place on the east coast and featured the poor relations of wealthy families. The fact that Henry never comes to terms with his sexuality, even in the chapters set a decade later in Vietnam that frame the story, adds to the overall dated feeling the book had. It is realistic certainly, but it seems to me that a more contemporary story would not end this way.
Does anyone read Cynthia Voigt anymore? I’ve read two of her novels and loved them both, really, this one and Homecoming. My students, who are in 7th grade, do not like them. In spite of having a full back-catalogue of titles, I’ve never seen a student reading anything by Cynthia Voigt. This may be because I teach middle school and her books are really more suitable for high-schoolers. I hope Cynthia Voigt’s work doesn’t slip away because it’s very, very good. Though, to be honest, I’ve long intended to read more of her and have only read one other book by her since this review first ran on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B.