From Carnegie Medal-winning author Mal Peet comes a sweeping coming-of-age adventure, both harrowing and life-affirming.
Born of a brief encounter between a Liverpool prostitute and an African soldier in 1907, Beck finds himself orphaned as a young boy and sent overseas to the Catholic Brothers in Canada. At age fifteen he is sent to work on a farm, from which he eventually escapes. Finally in charge of his own destiny, Beck starts westward, crossing the border into America and back, all while the Great Depression rages on. What will it take for Beck to understand the agonies of his childhood and realize that love is possible?
Potentially Sensitive Areas: Discrimination, Violence, Strong sexual themes, Racial epithets, Sexual abuse by a religious figure, Rape, Physical abuse
Booklist (March 1, 2017 (Vol. 113, No. 13))
Grades 10-12. After a traumatic childhood spent in orphanages, Beck, born in Liverpool to a poor British mother and an African sailor, has learned to stay quiet, preferring a solitary life on the road, safe from the vulnerability of love. Peet’s posthumous novel, completed by Rosoff, follows Beck from his meager beginnings in early twentieth-century England to his harrowing first days in Canada to his peripatetic path leading him ultimately to Grace, a half Siksika woman reinvigorating her Native community in Alberta. While this often reads like a series of loosely linked vignettes rather than a complete, unified narrative, there are flashes of arresting lyricism: “Little flames, quick as lizards, ran up its black and riven trunk.” At the same time, that language can be unsparingly frank: Peet and Rosoff do not sanitize racial slurs, and the description of Beck’s sexual abuse at the hands of a gang of priests is graphic. However, older teens and adults who appreciate literary historical fiction might find plenty to appreciate in this story of a hard-won discovery of redemption and home.
Horn Book Magazine (May/June, 2017)
In the early twentieth century, Beck, son of a white sometimes-prostitute and a black sailor just passing through, is raised in a Liverpool orphanage and sent at age fourteen to Canada as free farm labor. First stop, though: the Christian Brothers’ institution, where initially he thrives; but when the priests make sexual advances and he resists, one of them rapes him. The rest of the novel follows Beck on a hardship-filled journey from the Ontario prairie (after he escapes his assigned farm couple’s racist abuse) down to Windsor (where he finds a home, temporarily, with kindhearted African Canadian bootleggers) and finally to Medicine Hat, Alberta. There he hires on as a farmhand for half-Siksika, half-Scottish Grace McCallister–a beautiful, strong, “troublesome woman from a long line of troublesome women”–whose story merges with Beck’s. The novel is excruciatingly painful to read at times, but that makes Beck’s eventual and hard-won chance at happiness all the sweeter. From the very first pages it’s clear we are in the hands of a master storyteller (or two; as explained in an appended note, Rosoff finished the novel after Peet’s death). The vibrancy, earthiness, and originality of the prose is startling; the spot-on dialogue adds to the immediacy; secondary characters are vividly portrayed. There are no wasted words, no too-lengthy descriptive passages; yet somehow we see, smell, experience everything. Aboard a ship for the first time, “Beck felt confused and astonished by the huge discrepancy between the solidity beneath his feet and the vast liquidity of everything else.” In the Ontario countryside, a cow “gazed at the passing buggy, lifted its tail, and hosed shit like a comment.” martha v. parravano
About the Author
Mal Peet grew up in North Norfolk, and studied English and American Studies at the University of Warwick. Later he moved to southwest England and worked at a variety of jobs before turning full-time to writing and illustrating in the early 1990s. With his wife, Elspeth Graham, he had written and illustrated many educational picture books for young children, and his cartoons have appeared in a number of magazines. Mal Peet passed away in 2015.
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