18 Aug 2016
Vale Mal Peet. What a privilege to review this novel from Carnegie Medal winner, Mal Peet post-humously. It is powerful, it is harrowing, it is positive and you would need to have a heart of stone to not be moved by the narrative.
Ignatious Beck (hereafter known simply as Beck) is the illegitimate child of a mixed encounter. His early life in a Catholic orphanage is mean and cold particularly because of his colour. Then apparently remarkably he is plucked from this horrid existence and put on a boat with a load of other children all bound for Canada. On arrival Beck is installed with others in what appears to be a fabulous residence with caring Brothers of a certain Catholic order until their ‘happy resettlement’ with some God-fearing families establishing farms. The kindly faces and personas of the Brothers are not what they seem. Beck is warned but still uncertain, until he is put into an untenable position and realises the perverted paedophilic intentions of the saviours. Retaliating against the pressure being put upon him Beck is sadistically and ignominiously punished with beatings and rape and then subsequently sent off to an isolated farm. The uneducated incumbents are shocked to find they have been sent a ‘coloured’boy and promptly relegate him to the barn and feed him the most meagre rations possible. Not surprisingly Beck takes the first opportunity to escape.
And so begins an arduous trek across Canada, running, hiding, struggling, starving. Freezing in a cold lonely stop, Beck hides out in the back of a truck, which turns out to be a runner for illegal alcohol from Canada to the US and suddenly finds himself embraced by the first adult Negro people he has ever seen. When the rival gangs scuttle the operation Beck again finds himself on the road and penniless set upon by thieves and shysters until finally he hits upon a safe place. Owned by a similarly half-caste person although her other half is North American Indian, Beck finds himself in a place of security. But the emotional and sexual tension between him and Grace seem to be too much to bear. No more story now.
This is a powerful novel with echoes from the past resonating with current issues; systematic abuse of children from the Church, forced immigration of orphan children to the colonies (cheap labour often), racial discrimination, poverty and homelessness.
Apparently, as Mal became more and more ill, he asked Meg Rossoff to finish the book if need be – and that she has with such sensitivity that it is impossible to know where one begins and the other finishes.
I am highly recommending this for your own reading but certainly for your Senior Secondary students so much to debate and reflect upon and an astounding read as well.