A varsity letter jacket: it's exclusive, nearly unattainable, revered . . . and everything that's screwed up about Cutter High, as far as T. J. Jones is concerned. That's why T. J. is determined to have the Cutter All Night Mermen—the unlikeliest swim team a high school has ever seen—earn letter jackets of their own. It won't be easy. For one thing, they don't even have a pool. They will fight for their dignity, they will fight with each other, and sometimes they will just fight. And then they will realize that a single moment can bring lifelong heartache or lifelong friendship. For T. J. and his crew of misfits, the quest may be far more valuable than the reward.
T.J. lives in a small conservative Northwest town where his mixed race heritage sets him apart. He was adopted by a couple who have their own issues, but are very supportive and as understanding as parents of a teen can be. After a run in with Rich Marshall, a local hunter and supporter of school athletics, Mr. Simet suggests that T.J. channel his energy and start a school swim team. There are challenges, like having to practice at the All Night pool, but soon T.J. has assembled a collection of quirky misfits from his school and is leading the team. Mr. Simet is very busy, but promises to help in a bit, and the group gets support from an unlikely source in Oliver, an older man who is living in the All Night gym and trying to avoid detection. Finishing up high school and applying to colleges is hard enough, but T.J. finds himself getting enmeshed in the life of Heidi, a girl he meets through the therapist he still occasionally see. Heidi is the daughter of the woman Rich Marshall loved in high school... and a black man who was later paralyzed in a sports accident. Marshall is terribly abusive, and Heidi ends up being cared for by T.J.'s family. Heidi's mother occasionally stays with them, and Rich frequently shows up at the house trying to get to his family. The swim team does well, and T.J. is able to improve his own situation, but things worsen with Heidi's. It doesn't help when T.J. sees high school girls in abusive relationships and tries to understand why they stay. When a tragedy occurs, T.J. finds out some family secrets which help him go on with his life.
The details about swimming are great. Mr. Crutcher must have been a competitive swimmer, and perhaps even a coach. It's good to see T.J. finding a positive outlet for his anger management issues, and also to see him take a positive leadership role. Interim Coach Oliver is an interesting addition to the group of athletes, all of whom face challenges of their own.
Crutcher is a master of the young adult problem novel, and his books should be on the top of the To Be Read pile of all fans of John Green, Carl Deuker, and Miranda Kenneally.