________________ CM . . . . Volume XIV Number 10 . . . . January 11, 2008


What I Was.

Meg Rosoff.
Toronto, ON: Doubleday Canada, 2008.
209 pp., hardcover, $21.00.
ISBN 978-0-385-66397-7.

Grades 9 and up / Ages 14 and up.

Subject Headings:
Boarding schools-Fiction.

Review by Darleen Golke.

***½ /4

Reviewed from Advance Uncorrected Proofs.


Rule number two: Keep something back.

I will tell you that I'm not one of those heroes, who attracts admiration for his physical attributes. Picture a boy, small for his age, ears stuck at right angles to his head, hair the texture of straw and the color of mouse. Mouth: tight. Eyes: wary, alert.

You might say that superficial flaws were not uncommon in boys my age, but in my experience this was untrue. Stretching left, right, up, down, and diagonally in every St. Oswald's class picture were boys of a more usual type - boys with strong jaws, straight noses, and thick hair of definite color; boys with long, straight limbs and bold, confident expressions; boys with skills, inborn talents, a genetically determined genius for politics or Latin or the law.

In such pictures, my face (blurry and unformed) always looked shifty and somewhat imbecilic, as if the flesh itself realized that the impression I was making was a bad one, even as the shutter clicked.

Did I mention that St. Oswald's was my third school? The first two asked me (not entirely politely) to leave, owing to the deplorable nature of my behavior and grades. In my defense, I'd like to point out that my behavior was not deplorable if by deplorable you mean rude, belligerent, violent and antisocial - setting fire to the library, stabbing or raping a teacher. By deplorable they meant "less than dedicated to study," "less than competent at writing essays," "less than interesting to the head and the board of governors." Given my gentle failing, their assessment strikes me now as unnecessarily cruel, and makes me wonder how they labeled the student who opened fire with an AK-47 in the middle of the chapel.

My lack of distinction was mainly restricted to photographs and schoolwork. When it came to opinions, I was (I am) like the sword of Zorro: swift, incisive, deadly. My opinions on the role of secondary education, for instance, are absolute.

In my opinion, this school and its contemporaries were nothing more than cheap merchants of social status, selling an inflated sense of self-worth to middle-class boys of no particular merit.


Looking back to 1962, his sixteenth year when he "discovered love," Hilary, now "almost a hundred years old," recalls his experiences at St. Oswald's Boarding School for Boys meant to "attempt to transform him into a useful member of society." He finds relief from the tedium of  boarding school when he escapes from the mandatory cross-country run along the causeway and meets Finn, a teen about his own age "with black eyes and a quizzical expression . . .  slim, slightly taller than average, and barefoot, his thick hair unfashionably shaggy." Finn is Hilary's fantasy: he longed to "be him - to escape the depressed sighs of [his] teachers," the casual cruelties of classmates, and the regimentation of  boarding school life. Hilary spends time with Finn who lives alone in a fisherman's hut by the sea after his Gran died four years earlier; does not attend school because no one knows he exists, his "birth was never registered;" works at the town market for a merchant; harvests crabs and fish from the sea and sells them to market vendors; repairs and maintains his dwelling; and generally lives free from the restraints of society. 

     Hilary survives his school year, going so far as to manipulate events to spend the "break between Lent and summer term"living with Finn in a "boyish ideal" of "perfect happiness." "Even then I knew that happiness was something in which to plunge headlong, and damn the torpedoes." School gossip reports sightings of him around town during the holidays, forcing Hilary to practice his "impersonation of a schoolboy" to quiet the rumours and convince the housemaster he spent the holiday with his parents in Majorca. His roommate, Reese, worships and shadows him, ultimately revealing the secret friendship with Finn and setting in motion events that end in tragedy.

     Hilary's adventures end when Finn falls desperately ill and Hilary acts as nurse. After Finn spends 72 hours bedridden and suffering, Hilary finds blood among the soiled sheets and runs from his patient to notify the authorities. Later he tracks Finn to the hospital only to discover that he registered with his own androgynous name, Hilary, and is in reality a female. Shocked, Hilary acknowledges he knows nothing about the real Finn; however, in his reality, Finn remains "strong and fearless. Virile. Male." Initially "taken into police custody," Hilary is finally released "into the custody of his parents for the duration of the case, nearly two years in all, and exonerated of all charges in the end." The authorities speculate about events with a "sixteen-year-old boy and a fourteen-year-old girl practically cohabiting over school holidays, the girl dressed as a boy and acting like one and Lord knows what else." Hilary's series of rules to live by end when his world changes dramatically. Leaving school behind, he spends months restoring the hut and living Finn's life until he realizes the sea will reclaim the land and he moves on with his life. Now in the twilight of his life, he shares the memories with his beloved godson who rows him back to the East Anglia area where he scatters "a handful or two of dust and bone into the wind and say[s] a prayer to the spirit of the sea and the sky" and "gives thanks for all that has passed and all that is passing, and all that is yet to come."

     "An old man with a head full of memories" recounts his sixteenth year in this unusual coming of age novel. Rosoff prefaces the novel with a poem that links the present to the past as she allows Hilary to draw the reader into the 16-year-old's world at a British boy's boarding school replete with the pettiness of teachers, the inescapable bullying, the ugly and spartan physical environment, and the general boredom. Although the narrative unfolds in first person, the sensitive, independent, and introverted protagonist's name remains unspoken until near the end of the novel. While the action involves teens, the point of view remains that of an adult infused with the narrator's lifelong experiences and coloured by his observations. Rosoff focuses on character development and the theme of identity implicit in the title, What I Was, presenting a complex and emotionally charged novel using powerful language often with demanding vocabulary.

     Mature teen readers will identify with Hilary's loneliness, isolation, conflicts, desire for love and friendship, hopes, and desires; adults will undoubtedly be reminded of their own coming of age. 

Highly Recommended.

Darleen Golke, a former teacher-librarian, writes from her home in Abbotsford, BC.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
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