Wonderful: Nobody’s Boy

When my father was 8 or 9, he was home sick from school. He picked up a French novel, Nobody’s Boy by Hector Mallot (although I’m sure he read it in Dutch translation), and devoured it. He hasn’t read it since, but remembers being totally wrapped up in the adventures and misfortunes of Remi, an 8-ear-old boy who is sold by a cruel foster father (after being raised by his loving foster mother while the father is working in Paris) to a traveling musician.

The musician is, lucky for Remi, a warm taskmaster. Although Remi does have to walk with him all over France and learn how to play the harp and sing and act in little pantomimes with the rest of the troupe, the rest of the troupe consists of three dogs and a monkey. Master Vitalis also teaches Remi to read and write. It’s a hard life, but he’s treated well and he loves the dogs. But alas, while defending Remi to a policeman, Vitalis strikes a police officer and is thrown in jail for 2 months, and Remi has to survive on his own.

A sick little boy on a barge (Arthur) hears him playing the harp and invites him on board. Lucky for Remi, he is invited to stay on the barge with the boy and his mother to keep Arthur company. He does and he’s very happy there, and the mother and Arthur grow to love Remi. Once he’s out of jail, they ask Vitalis whether Remi can stay with them. But alas, Vitalis will not let him go. Things go downhill from there.

That’s how the book goes: lucky for Remi, followed quickly by, but alas. He meets kind people who can see “he has a heart,” and cruel people who won’t listen to him and throw him in jail. He lands in the lap of luxury, but never takes it for granted, and always works hard, which is good, because he’s soon yanked back into the vagabond life. The twists and turns of Remi’s life are dramatic — sweet, funny, tragic, harrowing.

Nobody’s Boy was written in 1878, so the language is courtly and old-fashioned, but the story is not too old-fashioned in the telling. There aren’t pages upon pages of description. All landscape and cityscape descriptions are just what a boy that age would notice, and they’re generally told to give us insight into him: does this place make him afraid, hopeful, happy, sad, etc.? What clues does it hold as to whether things will go well or poorly?

It’s considered a classic in children’s literature, and I enjoyed it. But most of all, I love the image of my dad as a little boy, sick in bed, captured by his first novel, reading as quickly as he could to see what would happen to poor Remi. I can’t remember what that first book might have been for me, (Anne of Green Gables or Little House on the Prairie most likely), but I remember it for my son: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I’d given it to him for pre-bed reading and came up at 10:30, and he was still going, wide-eyed with wonder. Getting lost in a fictional world is one of the best things ever. Do you remember what that first “wow!” book was for you?

Wonderful: May B

This is a first for me: a historical novel in verse for children. And it is marvelous.

Mavis Elizabeth Betterly (aka May B.) is a 12-year-old living in western Kansas in a soddy (a hut built out of sod stacked grass-side down and scant bits of wood) in the late 1870s. Her parents hire her out to a newly married couple because the spring wheat didn’t do well and they need the money.

Around my finger
I twist a blade of grass.
It’s what I always wanted,
to contribute,
but not this way.
If I leave,
schooling is as good as finished.
Come Christmas I’ll be home
but even farther

Her father hitches up the wagon and drives her 15 miles away. She’ll be gone from July to Christmas.

The new family is not happy, the wife only a few years older than May and from the East — unprepared for prairie life.

The sound is muffled,
like a child at her mother’s shoulder.
Just as Hiram can’t hold back laughter during family prayers,
Mrs. Oblinger’s sobs escape the blankets.

Surely Mr. Oblinger hears?
Three of us awake,
two pretending sleep.

Something happens and May is left alone. In August. The nearest neighbor is gone East. Nobody knows she’s alone and there’s no way to get word out to her father.

When the world is black,
I’m most alone,
the silence thick around me.
I pray for wind,
for rain,
for the meadowlark
to break
the constant pound of quiet.

Her only company is the reader she took with her. The only problem with that: she’s dyslexic, and every attempt to read reminds her of Teacher repeatedly humiliating her in front of the school.

The tale of how May survives months on her own is gripping and moving and inspiring (and involves hillbilly hand fishing). It’s minimally told, but each detail is the right one. If you or your child like Little House on the Prairie, this book is for you. Don’t let the verse format intimidate you. My daughter isn’t a fast reader, but she whipped through the 225 pages in a few before-bed reading sessions. It came out this year, so it’s only in hardcover, but at least try to get it from your library. It’s wonderful.

May B., Caroline Starr Rose, Schwartz & Wade Books, 2012.