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What a tale. The strengths of Mal Peet and Meg Rosoff merge imperceptibly in this story of a half-negro boy born on the wrong side of the sheets in Liverpool.
Beck’s early life was calm enough, but when the Influenza went through his family, his mother died, leaving him age 11 an orphan, in the ‘care’ of the Sisters of Mercy. We pick up with him as his life changes again, as he’s fed and bathed, and sent onto a ship – we soon find – to Canada, where he is taken into the care of The Christian Brotherhood. They taught him to read and write, garden and play games.
And while you can possibly predict the end at least, of that phase of his life; the telling is the pleasure of it. The showing of place is dramatic and beautiful, and yet again (after Barkskins) I want to go to the wilderness of Canada. Of a storm: “Beck stood in the narrowing space between the sunlit world ahead of him and the dark chaos behind. For a few moments, it was a kind of calm; then the wheat writhed, flattened and hissed. A wall of wind, unstoppable and full of ice, hit him, knocking him to his hands and knees.”
At the heart of this novel is the capacity of a person’s heart to change and grow, given the right conditions. There is no melodrama, no over-exaggeration; for much of this story, Beck has unforgivable challenges, but this isn’t what makes him tick. The people around him teach him to do what they need him to do, and feed him, and allow him to feel human warmth. And this is how it happens: how you grow from a husk to a person.
This is a true saga, though a relatively short book for all that. The beauty of the language is immersive, and it is a novel I can see being used within schools to talk about race, and travel, and the healing power that humans have for one another. Perhaps it will turn somebody onto the right path.
I met Mal Peet when he was living in Wellington for 6 months, teaching at the IIML. I pulled together a workshop for keen secondary school writers one Sunday, and it was magical. He was empathetic and encouraging, and his wife was also wonderful. The writing world is certainly poorer for his loss.
Reviewed by Sarah Forster
by Mal Peet with Meg Rosoff
Published by Walker Books