I love this book; it’s my favourite kids’ book I’ve read this year. It is full of adventure and scares, has plenty of unusual characters and a wonderfully menacing atmosphere. I have no doubt that I would have been utterly enthralled by Wild Boy as a child. It’s just the type of book that could inspire a passion for history, especially its darker side. It is also an amazing looking book. The pages are dirty and splattered, there are little flourishes in red, and a gorgeous map. It’s a book I’m very happy to own in hardback.
The story takes place in the late 1830s-early 1840s, in and around Southwark. In the prologue there is a brilliant description of how horrid the place could be as the night brings with it a fog so ghastly that ‘Even the rats in the alleys freeze in fright as the cloud came rolling in.’ The scene is set for the first meeting between Augustus T. Finch, showman extraordinaire, and the boy he wants for his freak show. The boy has no name of his own, but has been called many unpleasant nicknames in his short life. Monster, Wild Animal, Hairy Harold, Billy the Baboon Boy – all these have been thrown at him in fear and disgust. It makes Finch’s suggestion of Wild Boy seem almost nice.
Wild Boy is locked away in a workhouse, confined to one dingy room, when Finch comes for him. His situation is so rotten that the offer of a life without pay or perks and full of abuse and being stared at is one to be taken without hesitation. Wild Boy is reviled for the hair that almost completely covers his whole body. He’s learnt to fight to defend himself, and he’s fierce. He’s feared because of his temper but it’s his intelligence that disturbs people more. He is sharply observant, quick, and unsettlingly accurate in his assessments. Watching is Wild Boy’s one escape. It’s a talent he is able to develop at the fair; he surveys the fairgoers, turning the gaze back upon those who would stare at him.
His ability to see beyond the surface gets him into a lot of trouble. One night he see too much; before long he is on the run for murder and mixed up in the hunt for a mysterious machine. Fortunately he is not alone, his friend Sir Oswald Farley remains loyal, and Wild Boy makes a new friend in talented acrobat Clarissa Everett. He needs the help as he investigates the sinister activities of a secret society at the same time as staying out of the reach of the police. He needs all his Sherlock Holmes-like skills to get to the bottom of the awful plans afoot.
Wild Boy is an exciting read and the resolution of the story is worthy of the build-up. There’s a lovely Poirot-ish scene as Wild Boy gathers all the suspects together to talk them through his evidence. There’s also a perilous caravan chase! The story questions what being ‘normal’ means without a hint of preaching. There’s a lovely big streak of compassion for others and desire to understand what lies beneath nasty behaviour that marks Wild Boy out as very special. His and Clarissa’s friendship grows from very inauspicious beginnings to become a beautiful thing.
I wholeheartedly recommend Wild Boy for everyone aged from about 10 upwards. It isn’t sugar coated at all, but it is wonderful and charming as well as a bit frightening. Best of all, there is a second story planned – I hope I don’t have too long to wait!