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I am looking for a story that was part of a Reader's Digest anthology. I read in the very early 1990s as a German translation, but I am pretty sure, the story is from the USA (and was probably written in the 1980s).

I remember neither title nor author of the story, but this is a synopsis:

The story is probably set in the 1970s-1980s.

Main actor is Mat[t]hew (?) McFadden, a teenager around 15-16 years old. He grew up on a farm (probably in Wyoming/Montana/Idaho), but lost his parents. The first days after his loss, he stays with an aunt and uncle. He also tried to commit suicide with a rope, but fails. Somehow he ends up in a prison cell, where he learns, that his uncle and aunt do not want to / can not care for him on the long term. Thus, he is sent to an orphanage (or a Juvenile Detention Center?).

During his time there he makes 3 close friends:

  • The first is in his age.
  • The second is also around that age, but has hearing problems that were diagnosed loo late. Due to this problems, his family thought he was mentally challenged and he did not get proper treatment and education. He is a physically strong and friendly, good-natured person.
  • The third is younger, around 10. Grew up in a bad neighbourhood in a big city(?). He is clever, funny, and becomes the best friend of the "second guy". I think he also had fun learning sign language from his friend - I remember the sign for snow played a role.

There is also a bad guy (red haired?), a criminal and leader of a group of bullies, some ignorant watchmen and a female teacher who recognises the kid's true potential.

The conflict between the "good" and the "bad" kids escalates and Matthew fights with the bully-leader. This fight was described rather detailed, I remember lost teeth and blood. He wins this fight (strong farm boy), but the revenge would be fatal. To save him, the teacher helps him to escape from the orphanage, brings him to an isolated farm where he can make a living. One by one, his friends come to this farm as well (either escape the orphanage or are old enough to be released). These last parts after his escape were less detailed, rather an epilogue.

Does anyone have an idea about the title/author or how to find it?

Edit It is not Holes by Louis Sachar. Comparing the two, I would say, the story I am looking for is more dramatic. The story focuses on the things that went wrong in the kid's previous life and the things that are wrong in this orphanage (e.g. like the ignorant watchmen).

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    Hey downvoter, this is my first question on Literature.SE. Please let me know, how I can improve it! – Arsak Mar 2 '17 at 18:02
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    There's a general dislike for story-ID questions among some of the users here, since such questions tend to be overwhelming in numbers and poor quality. Don't take it personally! That said, you could probably make the title more informative, but the question is very good as it is. – Gallifreyan Mar 2 '17 at 18:48
  • @Gallifreyan Thank you for the feedback! Actually I already thought, the title would summarise the plot quite well, but I will try to find a better one. Suggestions are appreciated :) – Arsak Mar 2 '17 at 18:51
  • Nice question, lots of detail. The dates don't really match up, but some elements of your description match Holes by Louis Sachar. Could that be it? – Shokhet Apr 7 '17 at 17:45
  • @Shokhet Thank you for your suggestion, but it is not Holes. I'd say, the atmosphere is more dramatic. I'll edit my question accordingly. – Arsak Apr 9 '17 at 23:01
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First: thanks to you for reading the question and giving it a thought!

After several failed attempts to google this book/story by the story fragments, I finally had the idea to look for a list of all Reader's Digest "Condensed Books" / "Selected Editions".

Luckily, Wikipedia offers such lists in German and English. While screening those lists, I finally recognised the title of the story:

It is "Find a save place" by Alexander Lazzarino and E. Kent Hayes, published in a "Condensed Book" in 1985 in the US and 1993 in Germany (title of the German translation was "Freiheit auf Bewährung").

To confirm the finding, there is a good review on www.kirkusreviews.com (formatting by me):

Despite the fuzzy underpinnings of this "dramatization" of the story of four chance reform-school boys ("actual case histories," supplemented by "composites"), Lazzarino and Hayes offer an unusual closeup of the lives of children we throw in jail "because they have no adults to care for them." The scene is Clearwater [Nebraska] Boys' Industrial School, an institution designed for hard-core delinquents, where in 1963 there arrived:

  • Matt, a 14-year-old Wyoming ranchhand's son, who got into minor trouble with the law after his father's death left him orphaned;
  • John, a bright black teenager ("My mama left me, and the state figured I'd end up here sooner or later anyway, so they greased the skids and shipped me straight. It was all legal...");
  • Ralph, an obese 15-year-old mute who, for years, had been erroneously classified as profoundly retarded; and
  • Tony, a streetwise black ten-year-old who had acted as mother's pimp.

This unlikely group stuck together as friends: their "determination to survive and capacity to adapt to a system that... rendered them helpless" pulled them through. But not without some bad moments.

Lazzarino and Hayes vividly depict the two systems of governance at Clearwater: the adult administration, generally well-intentioned but handicapped by inadequate funds or staff; and the small groups of inmates in each "cottage" who actually run the place with the administration's tacit consent.

For a tough and very intelligent kid like Matt, there were only three options: release the pent-up rage (no outlet); go crazy; or begin to think you really are bad (so it's not an injustice to be in a place like Clearwater) and take over as one of the chief goons.

Though tempted by the third option, Matt ultimately administered a savage beating to the head goon, two of whose teeth had to be removed surgically from Matt's knee.

He and John were saved from sentences in an adult prison by an escape, arranged--hold your breath--by three of the Clearwater staff, who knew all along they didn't belong there and acted in accordance with "bottom line standards of justice and human dignity." In all, quite a story--told without the melodrama that could easily have sunk it.

Pub Date: May 28th, 1984 Publisher: McGraw-Hill

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