History lessons, James Norcliffe

Monkey Boy   
Donovan Bixley
Scholastic, $16.50,
ISBN 9781775431862

Trouble in Time    
Adele Broadbent
Scholastic, $19.00,
ISBN 9781775432265

Monkey Boy opens with a prologue designed, no doubt, to catch its intended audience of younger, and not so young, boys. It’s 1804 and our hero, Jimmy Grimholt, needed “to do more than pee. He was full to busting, so that he was afraid he would muck himself if he didn’t go soon”.

What follows is a description so full of historical detail about the “heads” on sailing ships and graphic detail about the process involved in defecation in such circumstances, coupled with explicit cartoon visuals, it brought out a squeamish – even prudish impulse – in me that I thought I’d long repressed. Jimmy’s call to nature and its aftermath are described with great gusto. But it gets worse: his difficulties, perched on a platform jutting over the ocean, are compounded not only by towering seas and howling winds, but an unhappy affliction particular to Jimmy. He is haunted by the dead – “ghosts, ghouls, phantoms, spectres” – and he is forced, sans trousers, to confront a beastly “Thing” that keeps coming at him from the dark recesses of the deck. These exciting moments are sauced, as it were, by a lot of gross-out byplay, much of it involving the “wad” or communal cloth of canvas on a rope used for backside wiping, a wad which even, at one point, enters our hero’s mouth.

This Rabelaisian hook gives way to the story proper, with the first chapter detailing Jimmy’s arrival on HMS Fury – a “behemoth among ships” – as a powder monkey, a boy whose job it was to assist the gun crew by fetching the charges for the cannon during battle. We meet the officers and Jimmy’s crewmates, the latter a disparate group, each physically repulsive in his own way. Not only are there elaborately written descriptions of these, but each is illustrated as well. The front cover of the book describes it as “part novel, part comic” and adds the tag “all action”.

Monkey Boy is thus something of a genre bender: mostly text, but text interspersed with illustrations and occasional brief graphic novel sequences. The publishers have been generous with format and layout, and while beyond the bright dramatic cover the illustrated material is monochrome, it is large-scale, lively and beautifully crafted. Donovan Bixley is a brilliant illustrator. Most of the comic book sequences advance the plot, but they are sometimes informative as, for example, the cutaway diagram of the ship, a representation of the gruesome business of keel-hauling, and a two-page spread explaining the art of cannon warfare. The target audience will find these excursions both hugely interesting and entertaining. I did, too.

The prologue episode is reprised in comic format later on in its proper sequence, rather like a dumb show following, rather than preceding, the main action. The language is a mixture as well. While liberal with the boy-friendly bum, gob, spit, snot and the like which pepper the text, and some inventive euphemisms – there’s quite a lot of flappin’ and flockin’ going on – the main narrative is generally elegantly written. Sentences are often complex, and the vocabulary is rich. There are also some deliciously wince-inducing puns (“Hear no weevil, taste no weevil”).

Moreover, along with the humour and language and beyond the fantastic, there has been considerable research, and younger readers will learn much of the realities of life on an early 19th-century naval vessel. Nor are these realities laundered or evaded; there are executions, cruel punishments and deaths – sometimes of sympathetic characters – and the battle scenes are frenzied, violent and harrowingly real. Despite this, though, the gruesomely comic and the comically gruesome prevail. Monkey Boy is cleverly plotted and fast moving.

Adele Broadbent has history lessons in mind as well, although hers are rather more subtle and circumspect. The past she presents is the more recent past of her hero’s great-grandfather’s childhood. Poppa is coming to stay for a few weeks and is presented as a dour and grumpy figure in the opening chapter, and so the scene is set for a later conciliation and deeper understanding.

The title, Trouble in Time, hints at the story idea: time travel. The storyteller, 12-year-old Ben, is transported back to 1935, the time when Poppa was of an age with him. Ben is portrayed as a typical product of the modern suburban New Zealand environment, a boy much of whose time is spent texting, being involved in team video game competitions and creating computer animations. Modern technology does not impress Poppa: “All these fandangled gadgets have a lot to answer for. Lazy bodies and lazy minds, if you ask me … .”

Perhaps appropriately, it is not modern technology that facilitates the time travel, but rather a process that seems biological, like some form of binary fission and a little creepy as described. Ben has come across Poppa fast asleep and for a horrible moment fears him dead. When the old man’s mouth twitches, Ben reaches out and touches him to ascertain whether or not he is alive. Then Ben’s hand begins to “melt”. This is what follows:

my arm stretched like chewing gum being pulled off the sole of a shoe. It softened and then melted further and further into Poppa. The heat spread to my body and legs, turning them first to jelly then into a soft, gooey syrup ….

Chapter two follows immediately and lands Ben in the past. To accentuate the changed time period, the font changes from the modern sans serif of chapter one to a more traditional font, and this device is maintained throughout. What was Ben’s bedroom is now a forest of “giant trees” and “vibrant green ferns”. There are the voices of boys his own age and, undiscovered, he follows the boys until they break up and “George” is left alone with his dog, and they confront each other. Of course, the attentive reader will have realised long before our hero that George is, in fact, Poppa as a boy Ben’s age, and thereafter Ben trips back and forth into his great-grandfather’s boyhood.

The plot is cleverly contrived. There is a suitable villain, also able to time travel, and a good friend whose loyalty is tested. The contrasts between rural life for boys (rambling around the farm, milking cows, eeling, rabbit shooting) in the 1930s is contrasted nicely with the more circumscribed technology-ridden existence of modern boys, but this is not heavy-handed and is always subservient to the needs of the story, which builds up to a tense climax. Of course, 12-year-old Ben and 91-year-old George become fast friends, their relationship both enhanced and threatened by the time travel which at once rejuvenates George, even as “meddling with the nature of things” endangers him.

I imagine both Monkey Boy and Trouble in Time have boys as their intended audience. Neither book has many or any really significant female protagonists, with the exception of the redoubtable Ma in Monkey Boy. Both are fast-moving and cater to the interests of boys; both mix humour with tension; and both speak in the language of boys while being written with panache and assurance. I do hope that boys take up these offerings.

A review of James Norcliffe’s most recent junior novel, The Pirates and the Nightmaker, can be found in the New Zealand Books online archive: nzbooks.org.nz/archive/.

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Posted in Children, Fiction, Literature, Review
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