James Norcliffe’s new novel The Loblolly Boy is a magical, curious and thought provoking story for children about a young boy’s wish to flee the harsh reality of life in a home for abandoned children and the price that he pays to achieve that wish. Both contemporary and suitably timeless, the story is in part a re-imagining of the stories of Peter Pan and Pinocchio for the twenty first century. While the tale is presented from the perspective of the novel’s child characters, Norcliffe’s delightful prose, humour and adult insights ensure that he has written that rare children’s book, as much a joy for adults to read as for children.
A curious and thought provoking story, Norcliffe does not offer his “young” readers any easy answers. Life in the ironically named Cherry Orchard home for abandoned children is truly unpleasant and yet when our hero encounters a strange creature who promises to help him escape, he quickly discovers that the grass is not greener on the other side of the Cherry Orchard wall.
Gifted with the powers of flight and eternal youth much like Peter Pan, but also with invisibility and all the furtive joys that brings, our hero flees into a realm at the very edge of reality, becoming the Loblolly Boy. His experiment in absolute freedom has begun, but so too has a growing realisation that a terrible price must be paid for such freedom. He is both more and less than human, and on both counts he has lost his humanity. No longer part of the material world, he finds himself cut off from almost all human contact and in an existence he quickly realises is a kind of living death. Truly he has leapt from the frying pan into the fire. And so begins the next stage of the Loblolly Boy’s growth when, like Pinocchio, he strives to become a real boy once more.
This peculiar tale raises many challenging questions, not least of which is this: is Norcliffe really saying that the frying pan is far better than the fire, that it’s better to remain in an awful situation rather than attempt to change one’s lot in life? I’ll leave it to you to decide.
With all there is to read for review or simply for the pleasure of it, I don’t often take the opportunity to pick up a children’s book. Perhaps that’s understandable but it’s certainly a shame. For most of us the love of reading began with children’s books and young adult novels at a time when our imaginations were quite literally (literarily?) unadulterated and for my part, it is the stories I first read in my youth – The Hobbit, The Giant Under The Snow, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Earthsea Trilogy, The Dark is Rising, and so many more – which even today are most vivid in my imagination. Quality children’s and young adult fiction like The Loblolly Boy is vital for fuelling young imaginations and instilling a life-long love of reading, but also to remind the rest of us of where we’ve come from. So go on, pick up a copy for your kids, your nephews and nieces, your younger siblings, whomever you want. Just make sure you read it first!
The Loblolly Boy is novelist and poet James Norcliffe’s sixth novel. It was published in New Zealand by Longacre Press on 22 May 2009 and will be released in Australia by Allen and Unwin on 31 August 2009.