Title: The Outside Boy
Author: Jeanine Cummins
Publisher: NAL (Penguin Group)
Release Date: June 1, 2010
I really wasn't so sure what to think before and right when I started this book about a Pavee Gypsy in 1950's Ireland. A what?? Then, I watched the author's video at bn.com and thought, okay, sounds intriguing enough. It's about a 12-year-old boy raised by his father; they're travellers (spelled this way on purpose per the author's note), or "tinkers", as they're derogatorily referred to by the townspeople -- these house dwellers, referred to by the Pavees as "bluffers", discriminate against the Pavees, considering them merely homeless and dirty. They often close their shops to the Pavees or retaliate against them in school.
In The Outside Boy, 12-year-old Christy (short for Christopher) Hurley narrates his story. The book begins with the death of Christy's grandfather with whom he has a close relationship. In discussing matters of death, the reader is first introduced to the cultural aspects of being a Pavee Gypsy or traveller. Christy and his cousin, Martin, have always been taught to care for the deceased a certain way, so when things are unexpectedly done differently, they horrify their family by taking matters into their own hands. Another storyline involves Christy investigating the truth about his mother; he's always known he "murdered" his mother, as she died by bleeding to death seven minutes after his birth. But an auspicious happening leads Christy to believe his grandfather (Grandda) sent him a last message in which Christy learns everything he's known about his mother may not be completely true.
Although the promised event regarding the truth about Christy's mother follows through in its intrigue and adds to the story overall, this doesn't take up a large part of the plot. The majority of The Outside Boy is about Christy's experiences as a child entering adolescence and trying to fit in. This story will strike a chord with anyone who grew up "different" in some manner, be it culturally or otherwise. We watch Christy yearn for acceptance in school and as he experiences his first crush on a girl he names Finnaula Whippet (because he doesn't know her real name, and she just looks like a Finnaula to him). We see as Christy doubts his identity and how this affects him in his interactions with classmates. In an amusing chapter, Christy learns about the ten commandments in Catholic school and is aghast at the thought that he unknowingly committed these sins. He then angrily confronts his father for not teaching him these commandments earlier. In the following quote, Christy has just finished a conversation with his father in which his father unburdens him of his worrisome thoughts.
"And I felt something creeping over me, relief mingled with something else. I was glad I'd told him, and I even felt grateful for him a little, because he'd managed to bring me back from a dark place. But as he stood and brushed his hands against his trousers, I had the feeling I'd taken something very big from him. Like he'd seen I was missing a leg, so he'd lopped his own one off and gave it to me." (pg. 184 of advanced copy)
This quote demonstrates my two favorite aspects of this novel: the writing and Christy. The author excelled in her writing style; never once did I feel an extravagance where a word was used just for the sake of using it. The word choice was simple yet contributed to beautifully worded sentences. Parts of the narrative are told in the Irish Pavee vernacular -- "We was all sleeping when them headlamps slid acrosst my face in the darkness... My eyes was as wide as them luminous circles..." (pg. 8 of advanced copy) -- but not all, so when it was there it contributed to the atmosphere, but when it wasn't there it made easier reading. And just to provide one more quote near the beginning I feel exemplifies the writing I enjoyed:
"Dad was only in his bare feet, and he made a frantic silhouette, leaping out of the wagon after his mother. I crawled to the door behind him and watched Granny deliver her unholy cries into the dark camp. I pulled my blue ankles up and tucked my blanket 'round them while I watched the horrible scene unfold: Grann, down on her knees beside the deadened fire, rocking back and over so hard I feared she would topple into the ashes. The keen she let up was so thick and tender I could nearly see it coming out of her, her breath spiraling out violently in torrid colors, defeating the darkness and drenching the camp with grief." (pg. 3 of advanced copy)
And as I mentioned, I adored Christy. His thoughts were so genuine as he struggled with his thoughts about being a traveller as well as those thoughts he had regarding the truth about his mother. He expresses pride for his lifestyle, but like any other child his age, feels doubt too. Christy was an immedately lovable character with an innocence but desire to figure out his place in the world. Additional elements I should mention are Christy's relationship with his cousin, Martin, and his revelations about his parents. Christy's cousin, Martin, plays a great secondary role to Christy. Martin is the braver of the two, always in more trouble, but he's also more comfortable in his skin than Christy. It was adorably entertaining to watch the two play off of each other. And near the end, Christy learns a great deal about both his parents; this compelling situation was, again, so relatable. How many of us have learned things about our parents, perhaps after determining our own opinions based on the little information we had, only to learn there was so much more -- that our parents were real people with different lives and complications before we were ever even born?
The only downside for me? I still feel a slight lack of understanding of the Pavee lifestyle. At times it seemed fun and free, but at other times I had difficulty discerning it from a homeless lifestyle. I'm aware being thought of as homeless is a stereotype of the Pavees, but the main thing that led me to this confusion was when Christy would mention he was hungry or didn't have enough food. I wonder why, if they aren't sufficiently provided with enough food, is the lifestyle so loved? I understood the other parts, (the freedom, the family, the fun), but the hunger issue was the one part that made it difficult for me to relate.
In all, I truly didn't know what to expect going into this. I hoped to like it, I'll admit, after meeting the author, who is such a fun person, at the Book Blogger Convention; but as always I aim for complete, if sometimes nicely worded, honesty. And in this case, I found that Christy and his story found a spot in my heart. While the lack of continous or fast plot may dissuade some readers from this book, others will find this gem of a story a heart-warming one not just about the Gypsy population of Ireland but of a 12-year-old boy trying to define his identity.