Review: The Vast Fields of Ordinary by Nick Burd

Monday, January 3, 2011 § 6

I first came across Nick Burd's young adult novel, The Vast Fields of Ordinary, while writing my previous post on the MLA's new award for LGBT young adult literature (the Stonewall Book Award for Children and Young Adults). The Vast Fields of Ordinary was the first recipient of this prestigious award, and I decided to pick it up over break, as a welcome break from an endless stream of college applications.
The story is told from Dade Hamilton's perspective, a closeted, gay teenager stuck in the vast fields of Iowa, beginning at the end of his senior year. He contends with a closeted jock boyfriend who refuses to acknowledge him, his parents' crumbling marriage, drugs, his identity, and a new relationship, all before escaping to college in the spring. 

Nick Burd's novel is both a coming-out and a summer-before-college story, two subgenres which aren't exactly fresh. Though Burd's novel is not unique in its premise, it deserves a strong look -- and hopefully a few hours of your time.

One of this novel's outstanding characteristics is its characters, who're so intriguing and full, where I'd love to have some, Dade and his new-found lesbian friend, Lucy, to name a few, leap into my life so we could grab coffee. Others, like Pablo (previously referenced jock) and Dade's parents, can feel free to remain on the page, but that doesn't make them any less developed or "real". 

Burd's prose is also dream-like and, for a first novel, pretty superb. His metaphors easily spring to life; an example, pointed out by this New York Times review (scroll down) is his description of a bra on the grass after a party as a "listless amphibian". His prose perfectly evokes a summer before college: slow, lazy, and hot, but simultaneously rushed and bittersweet.

Through his dreamlike prose and developed characters, Burd manage to adeptly handle its powerful themes of self-acceptance, love, coming-of-age that apply to all of us -- straight and gay alike. 

Burd's novel isn't preoccupied with a sugar-sweet message, and this is what makes it all the more real, and powerful as a work of young-adult LGBT fiction. Though Dade's life definitely "gets better" after coming-out, it's definitely not a magical transformation. The book's message is perhaps best shown in the quote by E.E. Cummings which prefaces the novel, "To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best day and night to make you like everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight and never stop fighting."

One of my few qualms with the book is its length. The novel felt a bit rushed, though who among us hasn't felt that a summer has gone far too quickly?

My other gripe is with a missing-girl subplot that The Vast Fields of Ordinary spends some of its already too few pages on. Though it did add to the dreamlike nature of the novel, I would've rather had those pages spent on Dade and the other characters, allowing them to grow further. 

The Vast Fields of Ordinary is not for elementary school kids, it's got both drug use and sex. But for those it's written for, teenagers, these aspects just make it more real, and I'd strongly recommend it to anyone high school age and above.

If you've got any questions, or have your own opinions on the novel I'd love to hear them in the comments.

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§ 6 Response to “Review: The Vast Fields of Ordinary by Nick Burd”

  • emilygw says:

    Great post! This sounds like an awesome book. Authors, such as Nick Burd, should be commended for their courage to attack such an issue with such realism and bluntness. There are obviously difficult themes in this book so if he had sugar-coated them, the book would have lost its strong effect. Glad you were able to relax a little over break and enjoy a good book!

  • Kyle,

    I really enjoyed this post! I always appreciate book recommendations, and this one certainly seems worth reading. I haven't read or heard much about LGBT young adult literature, which I find somewhat odd, since LGBT issues are finally starting to receive the attention they deserve. Kudos to you for drawing attention to the subject. I especially loved the quote by E.E. Cummings, as he's one of my favorite writers and inspirational figures. If I get the chance to read The Vast Fields of Ordinary, I'd love to discuss it with you!

  • Great post Kyle! I really enjoyed your perspective on this book. Although I had not previously heard about it sounds like an interesting read. What appeals to me most is when you said "His prose perfectly evokes a summer before college: slow, lazy, and hot, but simultaneously rushed and bittersweet." I really like the vibe and depth that this book seems to have, and you did a great job balancing both your likes and gripes. Let me know if you have any other recommendations!


  • Margot says:

    A great review of a book that sounds like it'd be a very interesting read! You do a nice job talking about both the themes, the form, and the writing. I have one question, though. You say, "he contends with a "straight", jock boyfriend who refuses to acknowledge hi." I think I am missing something but... the gay boy has a straight boyfriend who doesn't acknowledge him? Anyway, book sounds like a good read! Hopefully I'll pick it up soon :]

  • Hey Margot! In the book, Dade is in a sort of relationship with Pablo (the "straight" boyfriend), but Pablo identifies as straight to the outside world and actually has a girlfriend because he's in the closet, so he keeps his relationship with Dade a secret to everyone. Does that make more sense? I changed the wording in my post so it should be clearer now.

    Thank-you, Jamie, Kate, and Emily for your comments =].

  • Riv Re says:

    You're funny. "If felt a bit rushed, but who among us doesn't feel that a summer has gone far too quickly?" I love positive spins.

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