The Loblolly Boy and the Sorcerer
It’s rare for a modern children’s writer to create a really original fantasy creature, but James Norcliffe achieved it in his 2009 The Loblolly Boy. Its central character is a flying boy with “filmy green garments” and “great green feathery wings”, invisible (except to a few “sensitives”) and unageing. You become the loblolly boy (there is only ever one) by agreeing to take on the role; you stop being him by persuading someone else to take it on.
Why would you want to stop being him? Like his literary ancestor Peter Pan, the loblolly boy seems to embody a child’s fantasy of flight, freedom and eternal playful childhood. But Norcliffe persuades us that this state is actually a Flying Dutchman curse. Cut off from human companionship and from the simple satisfactions of eating and drinking and sleeping in a bed, the loblolly boy’s life is hell on earth – or a bit above it. The moral of the books, lightly touched in, is the importance of human connection.
Picking up immediately after the end of the first book, The Loblolly Boy and the Sorcerer deals with the quest of the loblolly boy formerly known as Ben to regain his human identity. But the previous loblolly boy, who has settled into Ben’s old life (as Benjy) and is cheerfully laying waste to it with shoplifting, vandalism and obnoxious brattishness, has no intention of handing it back. Ben’s dismay at being saddled with the damage created by his Hyde-like doppelgänger is both funny and uncomfortably real; his longing for reunion with his father, who can’t understand why Ben has suddenly turned into the Bad Seed, is genuinely touching.
For guidance in his quest the loblolly boy has old Captain Bass’s cacophonous sea shanty: “From the Burning Fire to the Frying Pan/Trust the Jugglers, the Sorcerer, and the Gadget Man”. Much of the fun of the latter part of the story comes from these not very trustworthy magical helpers. The Gadget Man, an amiable tubby inventor addicted to awful puns (a biscuit is a “white duck”; that is, “a cream quacker”), is well-meaning but absent-minded and dangerously distractible. The Sorcerer, tall, lean, glittering-eyed and sardonic, is not at all well-meaning: his malicious aim is “to make the plot of your life more complicated” – which he does, to hilarious effect. Juggling, gadgetry and sorcery are neat metafictional images for Norcliffe’s witty and intricate construction of his plot.
I wonder where a third book might take the story. Readers of Hornblower and Patrick O’Brian will know that the original “loblolly boy” was the surgeon’s assistant on an old sailing ship, who “lobbed lollies” or pills to the sailors. Is this where the first loblolly boy came from, and the source of his mysterious connection with Captain Bass? A nautical 18th-century prequel is a book I’d really like to read.
The maritime connection brings us to Joanna Orwin’s Sacrifice. Okay, that’s an exceptionally contrived reviewer’s link, but bear with me: these are two books which have very little in common. The Loblolly Boy and the Sorcerer is a light-hearted children’s fantasy with a happy ending, set nowhere in particular; Sacrifice is a dark and downbeat post-apocalyptic fiction for young adults, set very firmly in Aotearoa and the Pacific.
The premise of Sacrifice is ominously topical. Vast seismic and volcanic convulsions have wiped out most life in New Zealand, and presumably the rest of the world. Five generations later, a few Maori and Polynesian communities hang on in the swamplands of the far north, now an island separated from the devastated mainland of “Aotea” (the clipping short of Maori words and names is a neat estranging device, suggesting cultural impoverishment). Despite rigorous population control, their food resources are rapidly dwindling. When at last the volcanic cloud begins to dissipate and the stars become visible, the tribal elders decide to send a team of five young travellers on a perilous voyage northward, in a newly-built ocean-going canoe, to find the islands where the legendary plant “kuma” (kumara) is said to grow and bring back its seedlings. The tale thus becomes a science-fictional rewind of the ancient voyages which brought Polynesian settlers and their crops to Aotearoa in the first place.
Behind this future-fiction façade, Sacrifice is built on a mythic pattern. The story of the hero, Taka, is a Campbellian hero’s journey: a reckless, impulsive young man is called to adventure, and embarks with a band of companions and (perhaps) divine aid on a heroic quest to bring back a life-saving gift for his people. His genius as a dancer symbolises his special heroic status (“Dancing is your destiny,” his prophetic sister tells him), as does the tension between him and his society: Taka’s impulse to improvise spectacular new moves clashes with his father’s insistence on the sacred traditional patterns. Dance is an ancient and evocative symbol for social relations, and it’s not Orwin’s fault that I kept having incongruous flashbacks to Happy Feet. Initially dismayed at having the responsibility for saving his people thrust on him, Taka gradually learns to work as part of a team and sacrifice his own personal glory for the common good.
For its first half, I think, Sacrifice works brilliantly. Orwin’s post-apocalyptic society has complexity and depth, and a plausible range of competing viewpoints among its people. The descriptions of the design and making of the raupo canoe, the training of its crew, and the voyage itself are vivid and (at least to my un-nautical eye) entirely convincing; the final days of the voyage, with the travellers’ supplies running out and the reeds rotting underneath them, are extremely tense.
My reservations centre on the second half of the novel, set on the island of Sanctuary. Here most obviously Orwin is evoking the mythic archetype of Jason or Theseus, the questing hero in a hostile land helped by the king’s daughter who falls in love with him. But these scenes also steer uncomfortably close to a much-mocked Hollywood cliché: the volcanic South Pacific island where, to appease the volcano god, the heroes are threatened with being thrown into the crater, to the beating of jungle drums. And the treatment of Cleo, the fire-haired daughter of the island’s colonialist boss, is a little problematic: it’s hard not to notice that this boys’ story has only two significant female characters, who fall squarely into the respective stereotypes of the Good Girl (the hero’s sister) and the Bad Girl (Cleo).
Perhaps the most striking feature of Sacrifice is its ending – one which took me by surprise, though arguably the title should have been fair warning. Orwin undercuts many of the heroic and romantic expectations she has set up, while leaving it open whether we see the end as Taka’s defeat or his paradoxical triumph. It is a brave conclusion to a thought-provoking young adult novel, which raises – though doesn’t resolve – a number of knotty issues for debate by its adolescent readers: environmentalism, religion and faith, race and colonialism, social authority and personal freedom. Sacrifice is not such a beautifully constructed gadget as The Loblolly Boy and the Sorcerer, but there is a great deal packed into it.
Geoffrey Miles is one of the authors of A Made-Up Place: New Zealand in Young Adult Fiction reviewed on p4, and of TheSnake-Haired Muse: James K Baxter and Classical Myth reviewed on p19.