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Bibliophile: Tom Houghton by Todd Alexander

Tom HoughtonTom Houghton: A Novel

by Todd Alexander

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Simon & Schuster

Concerned with the effects of bullying, Tod Alexander wanted a way of writing about being gay and being bullied, “to help kids out there appreciate that school life has a use by date and beyond is a world of possibility.” In his novel, the character Tom Houghton is severely bullied and he decides to become someone else.

This is where the fictionalised experiences of Alexander’s character draw from the actual Tom Houghton Hepburn who was two years older than his sister – actress Katharine Hepburn. They were inseparable as children and their father encouraged all his children to be very athletic. Tomboy Katharine was more athletic than her adored older brother and their father’s harsh expectations resulted in Tom becoming quite a nervous boy.

Tom was just 15 when he killed himself, probably as a result of his sexual confusion, and Katharine discovered his body. Teenage Katharine dropped out of school and kept away from people, and for many years she used Tom’s birthday (8 November) as her own.

Also born on 8 November, the 12-year old Tom in Alexander’s engrossing novel lives in Western Sydney with his hard-working and frequently absent mother and his grandparents. Fixated on Katharine Hepburn and her brother, the young boy feels like he must become an actor in his own life to escape the continual taunts.

His weekly consumption of Hollywood films fuel his powerful imagination as he comes up with a plan to blow away the bullies. The account of young Tom’s desperate and deluded bid for acceptance is told in parallel with the story of adult Tom’s self-destructive existence as an actor.

There’s considerable desperation as the young and adult Toms alternately struggle with their true identities. Alexander has said that he also wanted to reach out to adults who are carrying around the burden of the past and those who are currently struggling with their sexuality.

Although set in the 1980s the self-destructive doubts created by homophobic hounding still exist. It is a fascinating story by someone who knows what it is like growing up gay and “count the days between gay taunts and abuse at school” … and is actually a ninth cousin of Katharine Hepburn!

Lezly Herbert

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