CM . . . . Volume XX Number 33 . . . . April 25, 2014
Sylvia McNicoll, award-winning author of over thirty young people's novels, has produced another winner in Revenge on the Fly; that is, if readers are not grossed out by it. The story is based upon an historical incident. In 1912, the Hamilton Spectator joined with the city board of health in sponsoring a contest for school children to heighten awareness of the spread of germs. Prizes were awarded to those who brought in the largest number of dead flies during a month. Many cities were plagued with diseases like typhoid fever and "summer complaint" which carried off many young children.
Will Ashton, McNicoll's 12-year-old narrator and central character, comes vividly to life, partly because the novel is presented in the first person. Will and his father have just immigrated to Hamilton from London, England (to which they had previously moved to escape poverty in Ireland). Uncle Charlie, who paid their way, is supposed to have a job waiting for Dad.
Disease, and the fear of it, haunt Will. Seasick on the voyage, he is nervous about appearing before the immigration doctor for fear of ending up spending months in quarantine. His father tells him not to cough nor to mention that his mother recently died of consumption. Will's baby sister died in London of "summer complaint" some time before his mother's death. When they get to Hamilton, Uncle Charlie does not meet them, as promised, nor is he at the address he gave them. Some days later, Dad locates him in hospital where he has been quarantined for typhoid fever.
McNicoll skilfully shows the raw, irrational emotions of the recently bereaved. In Hamilton, Will keeps noticing women with toddlers and thinking, for a moment, that he is seeing his mother and baby sister, Colleen. When his father says, "I see her everywhere too, lad," and adds that the memories will fade, Will dreads forgetting them. Will is haunted by the memory of giving his young sister a bottle after a fly had rested briefly on the nipple. The poster, "Kill the Fly and Save the Baby", strikes at Will's core. His vow to kill every last fly to avenge his mother's and sister's deaths is troubling, though. Has he found a constructive project for coping with his grief, or an obsession?
Although school seems likely to be Will's ultimate salvation, it is a source of stress during the time frame of the novel. Fred, the boy assigned to befriend him, is a spoiled wealthy youth who calls Will "Irish scum." The fly-catching competition leads to a fight between the two boys, and the principal requires Will to write a letter of apology for hitting Fred and accusing him of stealing his jar of flies. Will later gets the strap for taking a day off to catch flies.
Young readers of today will be interested in the use of corporal punishment and the emphasis on the "three Rs" in this school of a hundred years ago. Central Public School, which existed in real life, was in an area that included both rich and poor. It may startle some readers to learn that, for many poor children in 1912, something as ordinary as an orange was rare and almost unattainable. At school, Will meets Ginny, Irish like himself, and the only girl who has ever gotten the strap (she played hooky to take care of her younger sister).
Ginny's family lost an infant, too, but from what Ginny says, the baby died because of her mother's malnutrition and inability to feed the baby, rather than from a fly-borne illness. The idea that poverty, not merely houseflies, can lead to illness and death, arises again in a discussion between Will and his dad. Dad absolves Will of blame for the loss of baby Colleen, saying, "We were just too poor."
Subtly, McNicoll makes readers doubt the worth of the contest. As the fly-collecting and counting continue, one begins to question the very idea of a competition which encourages children to risk their health by going into foul places to collect disease-carrying insects, especially when many of them live in housing with no facilities for keeping clean. Obviously the kids' efforts are pointless; the disease problem needed to be tackled on many fronts.
From a literary viewpoint, the repeated images of Will pursuing flies in fecal material add up to a startling metaphor for his socio-economic plight and psychological state. It is a relief when Will's classmate, the gentle and intelligent Rebecca, encourages him to ease up on the crazed search for flies and enter the essay part of the contest. Speaking to Rebecca about his grief has a cathartic effect upon Will, and putting his sister's death into written words helps him rise out of the mire and make peace with the past.
Fly-catching takes Will and his classmates into various Hamilton businesses (the butcher's shop is especially fruitful) including the open-air market. In her acknowledgements, McNicoll thanks the Canada Council and Hamilton historians, archivists and librarians for helping her "step back into the early summer of 1912." Some of the characters were real people: Dr. Roberts, Health Officer; William Morton, principal of Central Public School, and Mr. Moodie, who lived in a large downtown house, Blink Bonnie, and in whose stables the fictional Mr. Ashton works.
While reading this novel, I put aside a cookie I had planned on eating and rolled my sweater cuffs over my hands to avoid touching the textured, larger-than-life picture of a house fly on the cover. Young readers, however, may not share my squeamishness. They may well have viewed the kids' cartoon movie, A Bug's Life (1998), in which two buzzing flies in a bar order the "poo-poo platter."
Revenge on the Fly will impress young readers with the importance of basic hygienic measures, like hand-washing, and could spark discussions about epidemics, the history of sanitation, and life in early 20th century Canada. McNicoll brings Will to life so thoroughly that I found myself wondering if he would be lost in the First World War before he achieved his dreams. Revenge on the Fly is a startling, thought-provoking work involving fully-rounded characters - and no one can accuse it of lacking realism!
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