Citrus County (Part 3) by John Brandon (The Rumpus Book Club)

“In Citrus County, you couldn’t keep anything unless you had a good hiding spot for it” (9).

Citrus County’s end isn’t easy. It’s disguised, to the outside world of the novel, as a happily-ever-after; Kaley is found, alive, safe, clean of physical or sexual abuse. But to the characters we’ve followed, things aren’t so simple.

On page 178, Toby imagines an ending to his story:

“At the end of the week, on Friday night, the same night of the week he’d taken her, he was going to […] return her to her home… There was no more room for cowardice. He had to undo what he’d done. He had to cover the same tracks in the opposite direction, lugging Kaley, lighter on his back though older. Whatever he’d done to Kaley would be over. He could end this and she could begin recovering. And then Toby could be with Shelby. He’d been Shelby’s greatest enemy and now he’d be her greatest ally, and she’d never know about any of it. They could start over. They could be themselves. They could find out what their selves were” (177-178).

Toby’s naive idealism is typical of characters, and people, who know their own guilt, who understand the impossibility of their hopes. A few of Toby’s hopes end up actually coming true, though they’re likely not the ones he would’ve most wanted.

The build-up to Citrus County’s ending was really fantastic. There’s a scene with Shelby, close to the end, that calls back to our introduction to Toby. Unlike Toby’s repellent meanness (to a young boy: “Your mom doesn’t love you as much as she used to” (8)), Shelby’s interaction with the high school boys outside the library reveals layers to both her character and the novel, as a whole; its setting, its theme of adolescence, of finding out what your self is. After Shelby tells the snickering boys that they’ll never get with a girl like her, that they’re worthless rednecks, one of the boys pointedly responds:

“I am too a redneck,” one of them said, the one with the closest-set eyes and tightest ball cap. “And I’m the type of redneck that doesn’t allow people to insult me.”

“Nobody thinks you guys are funny and nobody’s afraid of you.”

“We’re just some boys who like fresh air and company,” one of them said, the one with the wispy, pitiful mustache. “You like to read, we like fresh air and company” (191).

While Shelby doesn’t (she storms off, feeling victorious), the reader sees what Brandon is suggesting about growing up “different.” Toby is a bit of a pariah, without any real friends, and frequent-presenter of oddball class presentations. Shelby is not like the other girls in her class because of her tragedy, and other reasons personal to her (the one that springs to mind is that she “reads for pleasure”).

These high school boys, too, are “different,” a word that gets thrown around, pejoratively, very often in junior high, high school, even college. When you’re young, the Other, the “different,” can be scary. You react to this fear by putting up a defense to it. Some shun the different kids, others, like Shelby and Toby, call them out on it. In each instance, though, it’s a pot calling a kettle black. Everyone is different from everyone. Some of Citrus Middle’s students get dropped off by their cheek-kissing parents, some cram into a 3-seater, with friends, on the bus. Toby prefers solitary backroads, still woods, and following dirt trails lit from above, through the tree branches overhead.

When we’re young we are alike in our failings, our fears, our loneliness, and, often, not much else.

From the bottom of p. 193 to the top of p. 199, Brandon follows Shelby, in one of his longest un-broken scenes, as she secretly follows Toby home, and, eventually, to the bunker where she’ll learn her younger sister is being kept. I read these pages breathlessly, expecting her to find Kaley, but not sure how, or what would happen after.

I was very satisfied with how Brandon wrote the aftermath of Kaley’s discovery.

Uncle Neal’s suicide was inevitable, but that it would help keep Toby’s secret (which remained kept!), I did not see coming. It was an appropriate death, a bad uncle seeking, and possibly finding, at the end of a barrel, redemption.

Mr. Hibma’s offering to take Toby under his wing was perhaps the strangest effect of Kaley’s kidnapping and recovery, but I liked it. He seems to have finally found happiness for himself, feeling “a bracing normalcy” (212) sitting at Citrus Middle’s graduation. He may have been, in Aunt Dale’s words, a “loser” (209) the entire book, or his entire life, but as Brandon writes, “the worse he’d been, the better he’d be” (213). His character’s ending is the novel’s cleanest.

Shelby spends her last pages pitying Toby. She abandons any idea of seeing him, smelling him, kissing him again. Whether she believed the story, as the media told it, of Kaley and Toby’s uncle, is up for debate. She’s a smart, “gifted” kid who isn’t below interpreting the facts multiple ways. While the media’s story would explain Toby’s reticent nature, Shelby’s learned that Citrus County is a unique home to secrets about secrets about secrets. With all these secrets, how much can you ever know another person? How much can you ever know yourself? These seem to be the novel’s central two questions.

Interestingly, the final line following Shelby sees her experiencing her long-desired sense of normalcy:

“Shelby stood amid all that, the sun baking the top of her head with what Shelby was expected to believe was disinterest, not intending harm or help, the sun, like it would do to anyone who happened to be standing where Shelby was standing” (212).

By book’s end, Toby is much the same boy he was at the book’s beginning. He’s walking un-walked trails, aimlessly, lonely, getting lost in his thoughts. Those thoughts aren’t malicious anymore, though. No more thoughts like, “They don’t know what I’m capable of.” People won’t expect him to be capable of much when he returns to society. He will be the former victim of a tyrannical uncle, which he was, to some degree. They will expect him to slowly learn how to live normally. They will expect him to grow up.

Toby spends the last page thinking about Shelby, but they won’t ever see each other again. (“They would never have another way to think of each other but this way” (215)). They were to each other tornadoes, hell-bent, whether they knew it or not, to disrupt one another’s life; Shelby swept in from the Midwest, Toby from the undergrowth of the dark Floridian woods. Theirs was, at times, a beautiful storm, but one whose steam has unequivocally run out. And like the pang of nostalgia that follows an all-consuming tornado, tearing apart houses, shaking up hearts, Toby and Shelby will face the lives before them with greater understanding about “the things they’ve done,” their past, and how to shape their future with greater care, greater preparation for life’s windstorms.

Stray Observations:

  • Toby shoved his mother’s mirror to the bottom of a dumpster, Shelby took her romance novel and “pushed it down under the other trash” (182). Toby’s feelings about his family history oddly mirrored how Shelby felt, at that point and time, about her sexual longing.
  • The secrets in Citrus County often only did harm to their keepers. A kept secret suffocates its keeper. At the end of Citrus County, many stories, thoughts, feelings remain in their “hiding spots,” in the recesses of minds, or e-mail account inboxes, or in the fantasy of dreams. I appreciate the book for being unlike many mystery novels, in that many of the secrets that lined the pages stayed kept between author, character, and reader.
  • The novel’s final sentence struck me as Candide-ian, with Toby, as Shelby, Mr. Register, Mr. Hibma, as everyone else must, cultivating his own garden.
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