The Year of Ice by Brian Malloy: A Book Review

Why did I read this book?

I serve on the board of a local writing organization, and at the end of March, Brian Malloy was our featured author. I hosted the program, so I read The Year of Ice. I’m glad I volunteered to host because I loved Malloy’s book.

What is the book about?

The Year of Ice, published in 2002, is a coming-of-age story set in 1978. An arctic-like winter has descended on Minnesota’s Twin Cities where Kevin Doyle, a high school senior, is undecided about his future. He’s angry with his mother who died almost two years ago when her car slid off an ice-covered road and plunged into the Mississippi River. He and his father, Patrick, tiptoe around her death, but Kevin is his father’s protector. He foils widows and divorcées who show up at their door with casseroles and desserts for Patrick, who isn’t interested in dating. Then Kevin learns a secret about his parents’ marriage, and his threadbare relationship with his father unravels.

Kevin has his own secret. At 6’2” and 185 pounds, he’s good looking and muscular. Girls swoon over him, but he’s in love with Jon Thompson, a handsome classmate. Kevin can’t tell Jon how he feels; he can’t tell anyone he’s gay. He knows people like him, but they like him as the tall, handsome, charming Kevin, a straight young man with a sense of humor and a measure of kindness.

Kevin hides the fact he’s gay by embracing an “alpha dog” routine and kicking butt if any of his male peers challenge his alpha status. When Jon gets mouthy during a football game, Kevin slaps him on the side of the head, telling us, “[I]f I smack him, nobody will guess that I want to pick him up and kiss him really hard, right on the lips. And . . . he’s got to be reminded that I’m tougher than he is. Wolves do this all the time to keep order in the pack. I’m the alpha; he’s the beta.” Kevin attempts to keep order in his life, but everything is changing.

What is noteworthy about the story?

Malloy’s masterful use of present-tense, first-person narrative hooked me on the first page and held me until the end. I read the book in less than two days. Malloy creates a complex, engaging character who comes to life. Kevin reminds me of the teenagers I went to high school with—myself included. He’s moody and funny and a smart ass, and he hides his problems and feelings. He makes some mistakes, but I like him and empathize with him as he copes with his dysfunctional family, his unrequited love for Jon, and the girlfriend he doesn’t desire. Malloy’s supporting characters are unique and fully developed and, in addition to being part of Kevin’s world, have their own intriguing story arcs.

The Year of Ice won an Alex Award in 2003. Awarded by the American Library Association, this award is given every year to ten books that were written for adults but appeal to young adult audiences between twelve and eighteen years of age.

Why is this book important?

Malloy’s book is a classic coming of age story where the main character happens to be gay. Blatant discrimination and hateful behavior toward the LBGTQ community has increased the in last several years. Some people lobby to ban books like Malloy’s from school libraries, but the need to stand up for books like The Year of Ice is important. All young people need to see themselves in the world around them and to know that someone speaks to their experiences. It’s why coming of age stories are so important to us, often at any stage of our lives. Kevin Doyle shares his ups and downs and his hopes and disappointments with us, and we care about him. We want him to find his way, be true to who he is, and to have a good life.

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