“You can choose your friends but you sho’ can’t choose your family, an’ they’re still kin to you no matter whether you acknowledge ’em or not.” ~ Harper Lee To Kill a Mockingbird

And if you are 13 year-old Jack Witcher, you can’t pick either.

Jack Witcher may be the smartest boy just outside of El Dorado Hills, Virginia. But Jack is poor. His alcoholic and habitually out-of-work Pop, his achingly unattractive mother and his pot smoking, bullying, brother Stan are the family he can’t shake. It’s because of this band of misfits, to which he only seems connected by DNA, that he can’t make his way or any friends.

Now add in the complications of pretty Myra Joyner, the equally smart classmate Jack has eyes for and her super-jock brother, Gaylord, who leads the call in Witcher ostracizing and you have the makings of a good story. Place Stan Witcher as the prime suspect in the disappearance and possible murder of Gaylord Joyner and what you have is a suspenseful, page-turning novel.

Set in 1967, If Jack’s In Love is a timeless story. Jack is like any other boy navigating life and love. Innocence is lost, lessons are learned and there’s a lot of angst. And all these little phrases I have rattled off could make If Jack’s In Love sound like something you have read before; I promise you haven’t. Author Stephen Wetta’s element of mystery breathes fresh life into the boy-meets-girl story line. It also helps that Wetta captures Jack’s persona and voice so very well. Jack is bright and insightful, unflinchingly certain about Myra, yet unsure his brother didn’t in fact murder Gaylord. He wants help with Myra, yet doesn’t know to whom he can turn.

“There didn’t seem to be a soul I could confide to. Mom had been burned too many times to think any good would come of love. Her hope was that I would find some nice, ugly girl, after I turned thirty. As for my going with Myra that would be reaching for the stars, and she’d never encourage such overweening vanity… and Pop was too manly to have much regard for feelings. So I locked up my dreams and walked alone.”

But Jack does find a confidante, in the unlikeliest of people, and his plans to win Myra’s love take shape. Meanwhile, community pressure mounts to arrest Stan and Pop’s desire to protect his son grows with a vengeance. When Jack raises even the slightest possibility that Stan was involved in Gaylord’s disappearance, he’s completely shut down. “Witchers aren’t snitchers!” Pop roars. It’s then that Pop and Stan begin an internal campaign to keep Jack quiet and now Jack is being bullied outside his home and within.

If Jack’s In Love expertly captures themes of alienation, desire for connection, and ultimately, resilience. My only complaint with If Jack’s In Love is out of Wetta’s hands. This gem of a book has been marketed as Young Adult fiction. Certainly, I love any effort to get younger folks reading! However, there seems to be a new practice of shelving books in the YA category because the protagonist is a child. This may be appropriate, yet I fear great books will miss the broader audience they deserve.

There’s a lot of great YA fiction out there that doesn’t involve vampires or sci-fi-fantasy. Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and now Stephen Wetta’s If Jack’s In Love are all worthy of readership by anyone who enjoys reading.

Rating: 4 Stars
Pages: 368
Genre: Fiction