The Stone Rainbow
The Stone Rainbow
I’m tired and scared. I want to know where Benjamin is and what’s happening to him. Everything since the headlights finally appeared has blurred together into some kind of surreal nightmare that I can’t seem to wake up from. I just have to keep going over and over the story as if, somehow, it’ll magically change into something that makes sense to the people listening.
It doesn’t even make sense to me. How could I be watching Benjamin singing and whooping it up one second and then be trying to stop his head from bleeding out the next?
The Stone Rainbow, the follow-up to Liane Shaw’s 2017 novel, Caterpillars Can’t Swim follows Jack Pederson as he navigates life after nearly drowning in a river and being rescued by Ryan, a young man with cerebral palsy who became a town hero after the incident. Jack is in the closet, deeply, and fears for his sanity as rumors continue to spread about him after his near-drowning. When the old vice-principal at the high school leaves over winter break, a new VP takes over, bringing along her son, Benjamin. After a bit of a rocky start, Jack and Benjamin become friends, much to Jack’s surprise. But after Benjamin tells the art class that he’s gay, he’s run off the road while he and Jack are out for a bike ride. With Benjamin in the hospital, Jack has to make a lot of important life choices, including whether or not to follow through on Benjamin’s idea to hold a Pride parade, even though it may expose him and others to more bullying and discrimination.
The diverse cast of characters—not just in terms of race, but also in terms of disability and gender expression—are, for the most part, complex and emotionally compelling. Jack and Ryan’s friendship is particularly intriguing since it is built on the fact that Ryan rescued Jack from drowning, and Jack isn’t sure if they’re actually friends or if Ryan just feels responsible for him. To further complicate that dynamic, Ryan is friends with Cody, a jock who is, at times, homophobic, racist, and a bully. But underneath all that (and building off of a few big events in Caterpillars Can’t Swim that are summarized by Jack), Cody is still willing to put himself out there to help Ryan and Jack in the face of bigger threats. Readers may be put off by Cody (and for good reason), but Shaw gives us a certain depth that allows us to perhaps not forgive Cody, but at least understand that he is imperfect but trying to change (in small increments).
Oddly, the least fully developed character is Benjamin who shows up and acts almost as a manic pixie dream gay—he is out and proud, supportive, super nice, warm and gentle, inspirational even—but he comes across as two-dimensional in his quasi-angelic nature. Granted, he is exactly who Jack needs in the moment, but the deus ex machina element of his arrival and purpose in the narrative does stand out against the other very imperfect, broken, complicated primary characters. That being said, Benjamin is still very much likeable, and he and Jack do complement each other quite well.
Shaw’s narrative is hopeful in the midst of many difficult experiences that occur. Jack finds help from friends as well as unlikely individuals around town. His relationship with his mother begins to mend, and his work on the Pride parade that brings the novel to its emotional climax is heartwarming and heals many hidden wounds. Even with the slightly after-school-special feel of some moments, Jack’s story will hopefully resonate with young readers and provide hope even for those living in places and situations where it seems unlikely.
Stone Rainbow is an engaging and inspiring story about resilience, confronting fear, and overcoming trauma, even when it seems impossible. Shaw’s newest novel is an important addition to any school, classroom, or public library collection.
Rob Bittner has a PhD in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies (Simon Fraser University), and is also a graduate of the MA in Children’s Literature program at The University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC. He loves reading a wide range of literature but particularly stories with diverse depictions of gender and sexuality.