William Sheppard had never ventured beyond his Chicago neighborhood until, at thirteen, he was sent away to the Swope Ranch Boys’ Reformatory, hundreds of miles from home, for stabbing his abusive father in the chest with a pocketknife. Buried deep in the Colorado mountains, Swope is shrouded in legend and defined by one prevailing rumor: that the boys who go in never come out the same.
Despite the lack of fences or gates, the boundaries are clear: prisoners are days from civilization, there exists only one accessible road—except in the wintertime, when it’s buried under feet upon feet of snow, and anyone attempting escape will be shot down without hesitation in the shadow of the peaks. At 13,000 feet above sea level, the mountains aren’t forgiving, and neither are the guards.
With twenty-four months of hard time ahead of him, Will quickly learns to distinguish his allies from his enemies. He also learns about the high price of a childhood lost. At Swope, herds of mustangs are trucked in to be broken by a select group of inmates. Once the horses are gentled, they are sold to ranchers and landowners across the Southwest. Horses come and go, delinquent boys come and go. The boys break the horses, Swope Reformatory breaks the boys. Throughout this ordeal, Will discovers three others who bring him into their inner circle. They are life preservers in a sea of violence and corruption.
But if the boys are to withstand the ranch, they must first overcome tragedy and death—a feat that could haunt them for years to come.
Reading Group Guide
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This reading group guide forKings of Colorado includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author David E. Hilton. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
To defend his abused mother, thirteen-year-old William Sheppard stabs his drunken father in the ribs. He’s sentenced to two years at the Swope Ranch Boys’ Reformatory in rural Colorado. Despite being located in the beautiful mystique of the Colorado wilderness, William soon realizes how dangerous and brutal the Reformatory is. Each day he must navigate a world packed full of troubled boys and guarded over by wicked and cruel men. The only true outlet the boys are allowed is their relationship with the horses they are charged with “breaking in.” Young Will quickly finds that he must overcome tragedy and death if he is to withstand the ranch, but only at the cost of losing his innocence.
TOPICS AND QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. Winston Churchill once said, “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.” Do you agree/disagree with that remark? How do you think that relates to the novel?
2. Discuss the role of the mustang horses in The Kings of Colorado. Why do you think the author used them as a backdrop for the story? How are they are like/unlike the adolescent inmates? Why do think the dying mare at the opening of the novel has such a profound effect on Will? Why does it prompt him to write down his story?
3. Callahan Jenkins tells Will, “Everyone lies here. Just make sure you’re honest with yourself. That’ll help you more than you’ll ever know.” Will states that he didn’t yet understand what that means. What was Miss Jenkins trying to tell him?
4. Talk about Will’s debate with himself, and his decision, about whether to fight the new boy, John Church. What did it tell you about Will that you didn’t previously know?
5. Will says that it was through the nightly card games that he and the other boys all became best friends. Describe how a ritual can bring people together. Have you ever had something similar in your life that helped bring you closer to others/another person?
6. Will had a difficult time sleeping at Miss Little’s because of the stark silence, commenting on the lack of usual nightly noises of the bunkhouse. He says that there is comfort in familiarity, yet the abuse from his father was also “familiar.” What do you think Will means when he talks about comfort in familiarity? Have you ever experienced this?
7. Some of the themes in The Kings of Colorado are similar to those found in such classics as Lord of the Flies, Of Mice and Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Girl, Interrupted. Discuss the dramatic struggles that are similar in these works, and how they compare to those in The Kings of Colorado. If it’s been a while since you’ve read any of the classic books, consider (re)reading them now, while The Kings of Colorado is still fresh in your mind so you can discuss the similarities and differences.
8. Mickey, Benny and Coop all reveal why they’re at Swope at a different time/in a different manner. Discuss how and why the time and place that each boy chooses to share this information matters and what it tells us about the boys.
9. Discuss the role of the jacks inside the Sucrets box. What do you think they signify? What, if anything, does it mean as the number of jacks dwindles down? At the end of the novel an adult Will says that he has to stop and buy more jacks to refill the tin. Why does it matter?
10. Why do you think Will envies John Church? Have you ever looked up to someone only to find they weren’t who you thought they were?
11. How does Benny’s accident affect Will? What does that, along with Coop’s death, have to do with trying to break Reaper?
12. Discuss the fact that upon entering Swope each boy is asked whether he regrets committing the crime that landed him at the reformatory. What is the point of that question? Talk about Will’s response. Do his feelings about stabbing his father change during the course of the novel?
13. After Mickey is molested, he tells Will, “Sometimes we forget where we are.” What does he mean? Can you think of other instances where the boys forget where they are? Discuss the role of “place” (Swope) and “setting” (Colorado mountains) in the novel.
14. Benny said that he dreamt he saved Will. Does he? Why do you think the author included the dream in the story?
15. Regarding his youth, Will asks, “Can you understand now why I never chose to tell me wife?” Why did he choose not to share what happened at the ranch? Have you ever kept something personal to yourself? Why?
16. Mickey made references to being a drug addict and falling into gangs after the ranch. Why do you think Will’s life turned out so differently than Mickey’s?
17. At various times Mickey and Will see “ghosts” of their friends. Discuss why you think this happens and the role ghosts play in the novel, as a whole.
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
1. The experience of the handling, “breaking” and eventual taming the horses at Swope Ranch teaches the boys incredibly important lessons about life. There are actual detention facilities, like the Bexar County Juvenile Detention Center outside San Antonio, Texas, where estranged children are put into contact with horses, much like the inmates at Swope Ranch. These types of rehabilitation centers align with a field of therapy called Equine Facilitated Learning, developed by Franklin Levinson, which fosters relationships with these highly intelligent and beautiful animals. Research Levinson’s philosophy and discuss the fascinating affects these animals have on troubled youths with your book club.
2. If you find yourself attracted to literature involving horses, you’ll find another world of other novels dedicated to these animals. Try titles such as Riders by Jilly Cooper, Horseplay by Judy Renee Singer, and The Horse Whisperer by Nicholas Evans, to continue riding along your journey with these majestic creatures.
3. In a private moment with Miss Little, Will asks her why she stays on at the Swope Ranch Boy’s Reformatory, even after the horrific events that occur there. She answers very succinctly: “I suppose…we all have our reasons for what we do, child, even if we keep it a secret from each other. Me, the guards, even you boys” (p. 61) Create a list of the names of the primary characters in The Kings of Colorado. Be sure to include Miss Little and the guards, as well as the “Kings.” Write down next to the names the secret reasons you believe these people “stay on” at Swope Ranch.
A CONVERSATION WITH DAVID E. HILTON
How did this idea of a man reflecting back on his days at a ranch for troubled boys originate? Were there particular events in your own life that you could draw upon to write this novel?
I knew early on that I wanted this story to have both a rite-of-passage and memoir feel to it. I’ve always been drawn to these types of novels, and it only felt natural to go in that direction with my first book. I drew largely upon my own memories from growing up in a small, isolated town in West Texas—the dynamics of the relationships I had with my friends and peers, personality traits and characteristics of guys I hung around, pretty much anything I could remember. All of these things went into my characters and the way they treated the others around them. The reformatory ranch came from another experience from my past: each year my family would drive up into New Mexico to go snow skiing, and along the way we’d always pass a boys reformatory ranch. I always wondered about the kids that were there and what their life was like, and thankfully that always stuck with me.
As a former middle school teacher, what kinds of information about this stage of adolescence did you glean from your students? Were some of your students’ models for these characters? What are some of the similarities of your students compared to the troubled young boys of Swope Ranch?
It’s interesting to look back upon, because if I were to draw parallels between the boys at Swope Ranch and the students in my classrooms, I’m sure I’d find the same traits and personality types to go around. From the joking and goofing off, the peer pressure, to even masking hurt and pain behind characteristics of humor and violence. If I had to associate myself to a character in the book—I suppose I’d have to say I was the Callahan Jenkins of the classroom.
As the novel progresses, each young boy begins to share reluctant confessions with each other. Did you set out to write a “confessional” novel, and why did you choose this particular literary device to push the story forward?
It wasn’t ever my intention to create a “confessional” novel, these things just began to surface as I got deeper and deeper into creating these characters. I soon realized that these back stories would be a nice way to paint the main characters in a more sympathetic and understanding light, which was what I needed to both keep the reader rooting for them, and to have a more satisfying and emotional resolution at the end of the story.
There are several horse camp detention centers across the country. What kinds of research method did you employ to learn about the daily activities that take place in these detention centers?
I spent a lot of time trying to learn all I could about various juvenile detention centers and ranches across the country, and more specifically, certain programs that to this day implement the idea of introducing horses to inmates. Granted, I took liberties here and there for my own purposes when it came to the ins and outs and routines of a typical juvenile center, but only did so to remain as close as I could to the heart of the story.
Some of the terrible experiences within the walls of the correctional facility are extremely brutal, particularly the violence perpetrated by Silas Green. Are some of these sequences taken from real-life events? How much does “art reflect life” in The Kings of Colorado?
Many of the undertones of peer interactions were drawn from my own chaos-of-youth, but I can thankfully say that I never knew a Silas Green. Indeed, some of the events in Kings are hard to believe, but it’s even harder to believe people can truly be so cruel. In regards to the scene in which Will and Mickey read Silas’s record, and why he was sent to the ranch—this particular event was, sadly, pulled directly from a juvenile case that transpired in Houston, TX some odd years ago.
The descriptions of training the horses are vivid and visceral. What sort of personal experience, if any, do you have with this fascinating process of taming wild horses?
It’s funny, when it came to writing any of the horse scenes, I did less research than with anything else. That’s because I drew solely upon my memories of the many days I spent with my best friend down the road, who’s family lived on a property with barns and animals. I helped him with chores so that we could goof around and ride bikes that much sooner. I ran sheep, helped shear them, cleaned around the barns, and of course, tended to the horses. I remember being absolutely terrified of them at first, simply because they were ridiculously large next to my small, skinny frame. But the more I interacted with them, the more comfortable I became; though I’ll always remember his father diligently instructing us to never walk behind them.
As Miss Little explains: “We carry these things with us, child. People say places are haunted, but pay no mind. It’s us that haunted. We carry around our own spirits. We haunt ourselves with the past.” (p. 168) Do you agree with Miss Little’s philosophy?
I love old historic hotels, and have experienced some bizarre things while staying in some of them. Doors opening and closing, only one swing in a courtyard fervently moving back and forth while its partners remain dead still . . . But I also agree with Miss Little’s view. I think people haunt themselves all the time, shouldering the burdens of the past, unable to let go. I’ve been guilty of this myself, and actually found myself thinking back on these very lines. I began to focus so much on the past that soon the memories began to feel exactly like that: like ghosts.
William reflects upon what he’s become during his sentence at Swope Ranch: “If you really want to know the truth, it was how I felt myself changing that scared me the most. Changing into somebody else. Somebody exactly like my father.” (p. 189) How tied are we to the legacy of our parents and their flaws? What compelled you to write about this complex father/son relationship and the irony of Will’s sentencing?
I don’t think we are necessarily tied to every character trait of our parents. I’ve seen cases that could certainly be made for either viewpoint, but in Will’s case, I think it’s fair to say he was mistaken in his thinking. After all, he grew into a man who loved and treated his wife in the exact opposite manner of his father. But yes, his sentencing was certainly intended to be an irony, considering he was only intending to protect his mother. I wrote it this way in order to force Will to struggle with the guilt and turmoil of how he wound up at Swope, but also to mature and develop from these dealings.
Who are some of your literary influences, both classic and modern? What other novels inspired the writing of The Kings of Colorado?
I can’t argue that Golding’s Lord of the Flies was an inspiration; Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is another, and Stephen King’s “The Body” also had a large impact on me as a teenager. I enjoy the works of John Irving, most particularly A Prayer for Owen Meany, and I have to say, if I ever need to brush up on my dialogue skills, I turn to Dennis Lehane, who writes it just about as real and gritty as it gets.
William Sheppard uses the act of writing as a way to confront the demons of his past. Do you see the act of writing as a cathartic practice? A way of working through issues and problems? How effective is the literary process in healing?
Absolutely, it can be. In fact, editing Kings and writing new material was a large part of my own healing process while going through a difficult divorce. Being able to lose myself in the writing, throwing my emotions onto the page and into my characters—was as cathartic a process I ever thought it would be. Much of this is evident in Kings as well as my new project. I’m grateful to have such a device that can both be a creative outlet, and—at times, a means for healing.
David E. Hilton earned a bachelor’s degree from Howard Payne University in 1998. He wrote Kings of Colorado mostly in his apartment’s stairwell just after the birth of his first son. He spends his spare time either writing or training his miniature dachshund to run in the annual Buda Weiner Dog Races. He lives just outside Austin.
“As heart-wrenching as The Outsiders and as compelling as This Boy’s Life, Kings of Colorado is a coming-of-age story that grabs you from the first sentence and takes you on an intense but rewarding journey. David E. Hilton’s powerful and riveting debut is a must-read.” —Garth Stein, New York Times bestselling author of The Art of Racing in the Rain
"Set in the magnificent Colorado mountains, this coming-of-age tale provides scenes of gripping action as well as a sympathetic yet unvarnished look into the lives of troubled teens. It should appeal to thoughtful young adults and to those who still remember being one." —Library Journal
“Heartbreaking portrayal of innocence lost in the most profound sense. A former middle school teacher, Hilton clearly understands the struggle of adolescence, and he interrogates that struggle with finesse and admirable curiosity by pushing his characters to their most extreme limits. Will and his compatriots are achingly sympathetic, and their bond with each other and communal will to survive is riveting and thought-provoking.” —Bookpage
“David E. Hilton’s Kings of Colorado, a book that [is] equal parts Annie Proulx and Larry McMurtry set in Colorado in the 1960s.” —Dallas Morning News
“Hard, sad, stirring, poignant, and utterly beautiful. Hilton has written a coming of age story that will be remembered for its characters as well as its harrowing plot.” —Naseem Rakha, international bestselling author of The Crying Tree
"A heartfelt portrait of young men in a bygone age." —Kirkus Reviews
"For years I have searched for an heir to Golding's Lord of the Flies, and this is it. But in Kings of Colorado, Hilton allows you to look into these characters and see that redemption is possible. The story of all things wild—wild horses, wild boys, and the wild landscape that looms above it all—this book is as heartbreaking and as hopeful as anything you will read this year. A fine novel." —Will Lavender, New York Times bestselling author of Obedience
“Hilton’s writing is brutal and poetic, his images haunting. A raw and powerful debut.” —Noah Charney, international bestselling author of The Art Thief and Stealing the Mystic Lamb
"Hilton's portrayal of adolescent friendship is authentic and touching, and the story moves at a speedy pace as the boys' innocence is shattered in ever deeper and more profound ways. . . .A sort of Stand by Me behind bars." —Publishers Weekly