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Volume VIII Number 10 . . . . January 18, 2002
Desperate mothers, families with too many mouths to feed, and parish orphanages in 18th century England struggled to care for their children. In London, a retired sea captain, Thomas Coram, established Coram House for the Maintenance and Education of Exposed and Deserted Children to redress some of these social problems. Inevitably, unscrupulous opportunists seized the opportunity to capitalize on Coram's generosity by posing as agents for Coram House, collecting money from desperate grieving mothers, then disposing of the unwanted children variously drowning some, burying both live and dead babies, sending older children to the mines or the factories, and selling some to the navy.
Operating in Gloucestershire one such agent, Otis Gardiner, forces his otherworldly son, Meshak, to assist in the gruesome task of disposing of the children he collects. Meshak, brutalized by his father and labeled an idiot, a simpleton, a loon, eventually defies his father to rescue the illegitimate baby of a young woman he considers his "angel" and takes the child to Coram House. Meshak becomes Mish and remains as general handyman and unofficial guardian of the child. His angel, Melissa, believes her child stillborn and grieves the loss of both her son and her cousin and lover, Alexander, heir to Ashbrook estate. Alex, who prefers music to estate management, finally defies his father, renounces his inheritance, and disappears, only to surface later on London's music scene where he ultimately associates with notables like Handel and Charles Burney and his old Gloucester Cathedral schoolmate, Thomas Ledbury, now music master at Coram.
As a full-fledged Coram Boy, eight-year old Aaron bonds with the son of a slave, Toby, who had been placed there by Gardiner after tearing the child from his mother's arms. Aaron demonstrates his musical heredity in Handel's presence, thereby enabling Ledbury to arrange an apprenticeship with Burney, noted music historian, composer, and confederate of Alex, now gaining success as a composer, performer, and conductor. Toby, less fortunate, is apprenticed to Mr. Gaddarn, alias Otis Gardiner who is now living as a respectable and successful merchant while still illicitly dealing in the disposal of unwanted children among his many unsavory activities. The complexity of the intertwining relationships and events builds to a dramatic climax and a satisfying conclusion.
The plot abounds in parallels. Set in Gloucester and London, the story covers two time frames eight years apart. Fathers Gardiner and Ashbrook both try to exercise absolute control over their sons, Meshak and Alexander; both sons defy their fathers. Alex, heir to an estate, bonds with Thomas, son of a tradesman, as a youthful chorister at Gloucester Cathedral; Aaron, illegitimate son of a nobleman, bonds with Toby, child of a slave, at Coram House in London. Music brings Aaron into Alex's environment through Thomas as it earlier brought Melissa and Alex together to produce Aaron. Toby and Aaron, orphans, provide the connection to Coram House via the "Coram man." The story begins and ends with Meshak and poetry.
Gavin peoples her story with skillfully developed and believable characters, both good and evil, set against a meticulously researched historical background. In an interview, she identifies Meshak as the "most important character in terms of the whole story revolving around his presence and what he and his father were up to." The picture of English society in the 18th century that emerges teems with atmosphere, contrasting the elegance and comfort of the upper classes with the squalor and poverty of the lower classes in Gloucester and London. Powerful and sometimes brutal images evoked by strong descriptive detail and realistic dialogue contribute to the appeal of this story that deals with growing up, father-son relationships, love and friendship, good and evil, corruption and greed, and appearance and reality.
Awarding Coram Boy the 2000 Whitbread Children's Book of the Year, the judges called it a "far-reaching, totally engrossing historical novel . . .Brilliant, moving and ultimately completely compelling." Although some scenes in the novel are disturbing in their stark portrayal of brutish behavior and gruesome practices that may trouble sensitive readers, the story merits a strong recommendation as a powerful young adult novel. Primarily featuring male characters, this novel should be a welcome addition to the body of young adult historical fiction often short on books that interest boys.
Darleen Golke is a librarian in Winnipeg, MB.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.