This is the second offering that I have read from the Carnegie short list for this year. I am struggling to find one that I like at the moment but, I have read Tamar and Exposure by Mal Peet and liked those so thought I’d give it a go.
This is Mal Peet’s last book and he didn’t manage to complete it before his death so it’s finished off by another YA author, Meg Rosoff. Peet knew he was dying and asked Rosoff to finish the book if he died before he managed to write it all. It was a promise that she wasn’t expecting to keep and the gap is seamless. You can’t really tell where Peet’s voice finishes and Rosoff’s begins. Both are exceptional writers and were great friends so it kind of adds to the quality of the book. And it is quality.
Ignatius Beck is born in Liverpool in 1907. His mother was poor and sometimes had sex for money to make ends meet and support her parents and disabled brother. Ordinarily this may not have been a problem as one more child in a poor neighbourhood wouldn’t have made much difference, but the father of Beck was a merchant seaman, in port for one night, and black.
Growing up in Liverpool in the early part of this century and being black is going to be tough, and it is. Beck is orphaned at seven and sent to be looked after by the nuns. When he is twelve he is chosen to go to Canada as part of a programme by the UK to send young children over there to be adopted. Beck has never seen a car or a boat and is picked with some other boys from his orphanage. The voyage is tough and not all the boys make it. Beck ends up in a Catholic home in Montreal. The home is run by some priests and let’s just say that if his life was tough before, it gets even worse.
He is then sent to work on a farm for some truly horrible people, or a horrible woman and her not quite so horrible husband and eventually runs away. Bear in mind that by the time this happens he is probably about fifteen years old. Beck spends most of the book running from something and this time he is picked up by some bootleggers who are running whisky over to America. He falls in with them and lives with Bone, another black man and his partner, Iris. Things go wrong and for me, this is the saddest part of the book. For the first time Beck experiences love, and how other people can love each other for themselves. It is something that he has never seen. Each time he finds people that he could love something happens that destroys the life he has and he begins to harden his heart against it. Eventually he meets Grace. A half Red Indian (according to her grandmother) and half Scottish woman who has inherited money and owns her own land. The land is also a gathering place for her Indian family and her grandmother is one of the elders of the family. She is older then him and struggles against her feelings for him. He doesn’t understand his feelings for her. Both don’t see reason.
What I loved about this book…. it was hard-hitting, beautiful, heart-warming, heart-breaking all at the same time, and infinitely confirms that love and time can heal everything. I’m not sure whether it should be on the Carnegie as it deals with some fairly graphic subjects which younger readers will struggle with. Especially the first 60 pages or so. The catalogue of abuse that Beck suffers, and not just because of his colour, is horrendous and will leave some readers not able to continue. Try and push through this bit though because ultimately this book is about redemption.
I loved it, can you tell?
Further reading: Tamar by Mal Peet, How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff.
For the older ones amongst you: Kindred by Octavia Butler