I’ve been calling this my “dark horse” because I suspected that the style of the writing in The Kneebone Boy would turn some readers off from the get-go, making this a “love it or hate it” book. I’ve got to thank Peter Sieruta for posting his cringing review, and for going in to more detail here.
In his review, he starts by admitting that he “probably never would have picked up THE KNEEBONE BOY on my own accord. I hate the cover with its awful staring kids … and am not at all fond of books where characters have last names like ‘Hardscrabble.’”
I would posit that a reader this affected by the tone of the package…or by the ensuing “arch” prose is just not the audience for this book, and nothing wrong with that. But I appreciate that Peter took the time to lay out all the elements that disturb him, because I do believe this is a disturbing book…but differently so for children than for adults.
Peter says “The denouement also opens up a whole new set of questions that probably shouldn’t be examined too closely or the whole plot of the book gets shaky.”
So I decided to do just that, and dove in for a studious second read. And here’s where you should really stop reading if you haven’t read the book yet yourself.
(All quotes from ARC)
“On a sparkling, sun-drenched afternoon in July, when the flowers were blooming and the birds were singing, Otto and Lucia were walking home from school arguing about what they were going to do when they grew up.
‘We’ll open up a tattoo parlour in Little Tunks.’ Otto said.
‘Well, that’s fine for you. You’ll be the one drawing skeletons and tigers on people’s bums.’ said Lucia …. ‘what am I supposed to do at the tattoo parlour?’
‘You can console the people who are crying and mop up the blood.’ Otto answered promptly.
Otto and Lucia play this game throughout the book:
p.5 “We’ll navigate by the Orion constellation and we’ll search for people who’ve been shipwrecked on islands, then rescue them.”
p.125 “I’ll buy a lighthouse by the sea…At night we’ll watch for ships that are about to crash into the cliffs and we’ll shine the lights and save them. During the day we can throw things down at people on the beach.”
Each instance shows a fairly normal fantasy of vicarious excitement over other people’s peril, and a desire to be able to save them (well, except for the people on the beach, who you have the sense are being heckled for not being in danger.) The tattoo parlour story is the first narrative encounter with siblings in the book. Besides being simply good shock capital, it’s illustrative of what drives the Hardscrabbles through the story. Called “not normal” by their peers, they are fascinated by the abnormal, even beyond Otto’s clear fascination with deformities and monsters:
p.88 “It was too lumpy and large to be a house… ‘What do you think it is?’ Lucia asked. ‘It looks like something that’s gone all wrong,’ Otto said.”
p.78 “‘It’s hideous,’ Lucia said quietly, unable to tear her eyes away from the beast’s face. ‘It’s fake,’ Max said. ‘That’s just a very large pig with tusks stuck into its jaws.’”
They both crave and fear danger and folly…running headfirst into both as if in order to have the pleasure of rescuing themselves.
p.86-7 “Each one considered how idiotic they had been in accepting a ride from a stranger, especially a stranger who didn’t even bother to hide the fact that he was a nasty brute… ‘Do you think we could jump?’ Lucia asked Max. He shook his head decisively, as though he’d already considered it. ‘Too dangerous.’ So they once again felt stupid, as well as in terrible danger.
p.120 “It was the right and responsible thing to do, so they put it off until later.”
Lacking a mother, and because of that lacking socially recongized “normalcy,” they claim everything abnormal as their normal. “Believe what you want to believe,” says Lucia (p.16 and 18), giving it a double meaning. They turn the meanness and the scariness in the world into something that they can find comfort in.
Does it work like this is real life? Well of course not. And this, I think, is what some adults find disturbing about the book. But think of Dahl, and think of Dickens, and think of Sendak. This is not exactly the same as any of those, and in fact in some ways is more hyper than any of them, because it seems to more closely intertwine reality and fantasy. “…adults always think they’re being amusing and imaginative, just like children. But kids never lie playfully. They lie as if their lives depended on it.” p.81
Peter remarked how long it takes to get to The Kneebone Boy in the plot, and I felt a similar apprehensive anticipation on my first read. I’ve wondered if this is a bad title for this book, because it sets the reader up for something that the author–in fact–intends not to give. But in retrospect, the story of The Kneebone Boy is a symbol, and having him as a red-herring throughout is important. It’s important that the reader keep on waiting to find him…as the Hardscrabbles do…and lets them displace feelings about their mother, so that they don’t have to overtly state them…
p.232 “’Did you think telling us about The Kneebone Boy would scare us enough to keep out of your way?’ ‘It would have if you lot were normal.’ ‘Well, we’re not…Not at all.’ It felt really good to say that, especially when other people had been saying that about them for so long.”
p.252 “Maybe it was because of what Saint George had said—that The Kneebone Boy had spent his life hidden away so that the rest of the Kneebones could live as though everything was just fine.”
p.274 “I knew there was something wrong with her. I remember when she began to change. All the strange things she did and said. And then she’d become herself again for a while, so you’d think you had imagined it all.”
p.275 “He was afraid that if he told us about Mum, it would have made it all true.”
This then also explains what Peter calls Otto’s “elective mutism.” If Otto doesn’t talk, he doesn’t have to admit that he remembers what he says on p.274, above. In fact, at Otto’s first “breakthrough,” when he describes the night his mother left, on p.207, Potter describes–for the first and only time in the entire book–exactly how his hands are moving to say it. This suddenly makes Otto come into keen focus, as if he’s about to say the first true and genuine thing in the book.
I think this is what Peter was referring to as “a whole new set of questions that probably shouldn’t be examined too closely or the whole plot of the book gets shaky.” That is, what does it say about mental illness, and how children react to it? Miriam, in her comments, comes out in favor of the book but also asks:
“The twist was fantastically done, but I really want to know what a professional in a field related to the twist would think. And especially, someone from a family that has to deal with these issues. In some ways, I fear it’s not real-world enough–that it’s very much a real-world problem, but an idealized solution. That the world isn’t that kind to people in that situation, or that what seems to be kindness somehow isn’t. It’s dealing with very difficult issues, and I’m not convinced it’s dealing with them accurately.”
And truthfully, I share the same question. (Wendy shares her medical-professional opinion … though I’d appeciate hearing more if they can be shared). I have to think though, that in the end trying to claim this as a book about how children might deal with disability (as, for instance, Mockingbird or Out of My Mind), is really misdireciton. Is this book really about giving us an “idealized solution” to a real problem? I feel like the the tone of the book is far enough removed from reality that readers will be able to take just what they need, just what they can actually use. This is really a book about making ones own “normal,” … about how dysfunctionality in a family doesn’t mean you can’t feel good about your family … how if the world insists on calling your normal “not,” then there’s power in just claiming the term “not normal”…and how to lie because your life depends on it. It is about living in the very fuzzy terrain that exists between truth and lie, real and not real. It is about shaking up social norms like a snow globe and examining everything. And about the power of being funny, or clever, or even “hideous”.
p.205 “You are wondering why Lucia is not telling her brother that The Kneebone Boy is, in fact, the Sultan of Juwi. She has a good reason and it is this: They would not have believe her. Maybe you don’t believe her either. After all, she does have the tendency to see bits and pieces of the sultan in other people. There is no denying that Mr. Dupuis has the sultan’s chin and eyes. And her classmate Aidan McMartin has the Sultan’s lower lip, but exactly. Then there was the woman on the train…. They all have bits and pieces of the sultan but the boy in the tree was the sultan, right down to the quick-primed eyes that looked as though they knew all Lucia’s worst qualities and liked her even more because of them.”
Disturbing? sure. Disturbing doesn’t mean not distinguished.