Going into this I really wasn’t sure what to expect. Early reviews on the Carnegie Shadowing site seem to be focusing on the inappropriateness of this novel for teen readers, and the concerns over the graphic nature of the abuse experienced by the main character. Looking beyond these comments I learned that Peet had been inspired to write this after reading something about the historical abuse of children sent to Canada and Australia. Of course it’s not going to be all sweetness and light!
With something of a heavy heart I set myself to read this. Oh, how I was doing this book a disservice.
The opening part gives us, very tersely, the background to Beck and immediately makes it clear that this is a boy who was not going to get a good deal in life. I read with a sense of detachment of his early years in the orphanage in Liverpool. Beck gives little comment on this, and the decision to not write this in first-person means we don’t have to go too deep into the emotions/thoughts of the character though it’s all too clear how he’s feeling. I was disgusted by the way in which these boys were packed off to Canada and the lack of care and compassion shown to them.
As part one focuses on the historical element of Beck’s story we cannot shy away from the time he spends with the Brothers. From early on there are hints of bad things happening, and the little details suggesting the abuse experienced by many of the boys indicates the scale of this horror. A number of reviews express concern at the graphic nature of the bath scene where Brother Robert attempts to seduce Beck. I confess to reading this feeling very uncomfortable, and my relief when Beck fought back was chillingly quashed moments later when we were categorically told the results of him not complying with events. An event that will linger long in the memory but, however uncomfortable it made me, it is fact and a truth that deserves to be told.
Watching Beck as he journeys through life was bleak. He is not treated well, and on the rare occasions he is shown love and compassion events conspire to make him feel that he cannot trust anyone. It was a sobering thought that the criminals he encounters are actually the people who treat him most kindly.
When Beck is finally discovered by Grace they appear to have little in common. Over time, they establish a close bond and this attempt to provide Beck with some redemption was welcomed by me. I certainly didn’t read this section feeling that their intimacy was unwelcome. If anything, the fact that someone who had experienced such pain and misery could still find it within themself to love was inspiring.
Peet – and Rosoff who completed the novel after his death – are favourites to win this year’s award. By the comments on the Shadowing site there’ll be lots of students denied the chance to read this and form their own opinion of it. That is a shame. It’s a tough read, without a doubt, but there’s a lot to admire in this.