Sprout, the 2009 novel by Dale Peck, explores the life of Daniel “Sprout” Bradford, who is taken from Long Island to a small Kansas town by his grieving father. This novel explores the teen experience of coming out, but encompasses a different view of such an event because Sprout’s mother has passed away: the reactions of his surviving parent and peers are influenced by this added dimension.
The focus of the story is on the dynamics between Mrs. Miller and Sprout. Mrs. Miller is a teacher at the Hutchinson, Kansas school who takes an interest in Sprout’s writing potential, and much of his character development is instigated by her influence. It is with her prodding to improve his writing that Sprout is enabled to analyze himself in terms of his sexuality, though he never denies homosexuality. One suspects that the one reason Sprout dyes his hair green is that it is a way of expressing his state of being without having to articulate it. Mrs. Miller points this out but ironically she fears that an essay pertaining to Sprout’s sexuality might jeopardize his winning a state writing competition she has pushed him into doing. Mrs. Miller serves as a supporter who crosses a lot of boundaries (some of them inappropriate, supplying him with alcoholic drinks in her home), but at the same time is a major figure in leading Sprout to suppress his feelings, for which she later expresses regret and reverses (p. 273).
Readers are only occasionally provided the reaction of Sprout’s peers except that he is generally picked last in selecting sports teams, despite his running ability. His best friend Ruthie has pigeonholed him as a relationship failure, but what she does not know is that he has already begun fooling around with the same boy she is after, Ian. Ian himself is furtive as the affair carries on in the janitor’s closet for four years, and he is never exposed for his involvement with Sprout. In fact, Ian later impregnates Ruthie, perhaps to prove a point (p. 262).
Sprout’s mother never gets to have her say on the matter of his sexuality, but the tension her absence creates makes Sprout’s father have sloppier and more erratic reactions.
A year earlier, when my dad found a couple of gay sites in the cache of Internet Explorer, he threw my dictionary into our PC. I think he thought I’d learned how to be gay from the web, although the truth is I’d only looked at those kinds of sites after I was pretty sure about myself…
“I should have seen it coming. Absent mother, poor role model for a father. I apologize, son. I should have found a maternal figure for you.” (p. 70-71)
The initial hostility of Sprout’s father indicates that he sees his son’s sexuality as another blow or failing. Unlike many parents with a negative view, however, he does not blame his child. His father has also developed alcoholism in the wake of his mother’s death, and therefore, the extraordinary circumstances cloud some knowledge as to how the father might react under less duress. Immediately after the first verbal acknowledgement of the situation, his father asks his son to pass him a beer.
“That’s it? A beer?”
“Oh, okay, two.”
He didn’t meet my eyes. “Hey. You’re a fag. I’m a drunk. Nobody’s perfect.” … “That was mean. You’re gay. I’m an alcoholic.”
“Just promise me you won’t tell anyone. I don’t want to have to identify my son at the morgue.” (p. 72)
The father cannot be said to offer any support to Sprout, but his reaction is more indicative of an overall instability and responsiveness to the external culture that might compromise his son’s safety.
Finally, Sprout’s father slowly does a few things that might be considered marginally supportive of his son’s sexuality and overall well-being. He leaves a condom in his son’s room, prominently placed, and with a note that states: “I don’t want to know. But I don’t want you dead either” (p. 135). When Sprout’s love interest, Ty, runs away from an abusive home after Sprout does not stand up for him, his father finally pulls his act together and tries to put a show of tough support for his devastated son, but it is too late in some ways.
Sprout is a work that shows a coming out development period that happens over a number of years, with a few defining, dramatic moments. There are no major moments of affirming support or endangering rejection to the announcement, perhaps suspending Sprout’s ability to become as comfortable with the idea of a relationship with a boy as he is with his sexuality.
Peck, D. (2009). Sprout. New York: Bloomsbury.
ALA Stonewall Book Award Winner in 2010
Lambda Nomination (Dale Peck blog)