“He leads me to the stand. I can’t look at my dad. Maybe he’s been wrong about a lot of things, but this is the one he got the most wrong: there are much lonelier places than a pitcher’s mound, and there are much deeper tests of who you are.”
Braden Raynor’s father, Mart Raynor, is known to all the residents of Ornette, and other surrounding Southern California towns, as a right wing Christian radio personality. But to Braden, he’s just his father, the man who raised him when his mother abandoned him, and coached him to become a star pitcher on his high school baseball team. Then Mart is arrested, accused of killing a police officer in a hit and run accident, and Braden becomes a key witness to the night’s events. In addition to the prospect of testifying in court, now Braden is facing his first baseball season without his father’s guidance, and soon he will have to play against Alex Reyes, the nephew of the police officer his father is accused of killing. And with Mart in jail, Braden’s estranged older brother Trey must return home for the first time in nearly a decade to watch over his brother during the trial.
Religion and baseball make an unusual combination, but debut novelist Kelly Loy Gilbert uses these devices to good effect, defining Braden’s character at the crux of family, faith, and sport. In more ways than one, Braden is expected to be his father’s second chance; not only must he be perfect where Trey was flawed, he must pursue the professional baseball career that an injury took from his father. Braden is heart-breakingly earnest, even when the values his father has impressed upon him lead him to be cold, cruel, or judgemental. Although Trey’s friend Kevin, who is also one of Braden’s teachers, exemplifies a less harsh brand of faith, Braden finds himself unable to embrace the reassurance Kevin offers lest he betray his father.
Conviction is much more introspective than action-oriented. It focuses on showing how Mart has taken his faith and used it to control Braden, who has been brought up to believe he must obey his father in order to be right with God. Braden is fiercely loyal to his father, unable to see how unfair it is that his father has turned his parental love into a burden of guilt. He doesn’t know how to view his father’s arrest except as a trial of his faith and character, a test which he must rise to meet in order to save his only parent. It is heart wrenching to watch him bargaining with God, believing that if he is chaste and hard-working, God will give his father back. Holding himself to impossible standards, he begins to buckle under the pressure of having his father’s defense rest on his shoulders.
Gilbert employs a cagey narrative style that can be both suspenseful and frustrating, making it difficult to know her characters. Braden can barely stand to think about the night of the accident, and he dreads the day he will be called to testify. His brother Trey is more absence than presence for most of the book, keeping strange hours and leaving Braden alone for long stretches. Though he is supposed to be taking care of his brother, the difficulty of coming home and contending with a younger sibling who loves their father as much as Trey despises him adds a constant tension to their interactions. As a result, we barely know Trey until almost the end of the book, so it is hard to know if his feelings towards his father are justified or exaggerated. Braden is similarly hard to pin down for all that we are in his head; although we feel sympathy for how his father’s faith has twisted his upbringing, he reveals so little that it is hard to assess whether his moral compass is well-calibrated or defective until the very end, when tensions come to a head. Although Gilbert at first seems to be aiming for a melodramatic ending, she evens out, bringing Conviction to the well-considered conclusion this patient book deserves.
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