________________ CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 41 . . . . June 22, 2018


Very Rich.

Polly Horvath.
Toronto, ON: Puffin/Penguin Canada, Sept., 2018.
295 pp., hardcover & EPUB, $19.99 (hc.).
ISBN 978-0-14-319861-1 (hc.), ISBN 978-0-14-319862-8 (EPUB).

Grades 5-9 / Ages 10-14.

Review by Mary Thomas.

***½ /4

Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.



Finally everything was cleared away for the last game of the day.

Uncle Henry sat down, looked around the table with narrowed eyes, and then brought a deck of cards out of his pocket with a flourish.

"It's poker," Turgid explained to Rupert. "And we play until there is one winner left who has won everything."

"You mean I can lose my prizes again?" asked Rupert. "The ones I won in all the other games?"

"Yep, you probably will too. Uncle Henry is a dynamite poker player. Same with Dad. Uncle Moffat's not bad. They've been playing for years. The rest of us are pretty much on an even playing field. Someone will end up walking away with everything at the end of the game. It's tough. But on the other hand, the prizes aren't the point, it's playing the game, right?"

No, thought Rupert, it's the prizes. He turned his head and looked at everything he'd won. He had a warm winter hat, a stuffed bear, two boxes of chocolates, a Monopoly game, a set of encyclopedias (he couldn't even lift all of those) – why, it would take a truck to get all of this home.

The title of this book is Very Rich, but the main character is, in fact, poor – not just poor-poor, but very poor indeed. Rupert Brown lives on the outskirts of Steelville with his embittered mother, a cleaner at the steel factory, his ne'er-do-well father who watches television all winter and tinkers with his Trans Am car in the nice weather, and a multitude of siblings of whom Elise is the only even slightly sympathetic one. She is quiet and unassuming, rather like Rupert himself; the others are not. They all exist in a perpetual state of cold, hunger, and general misery, and the whole family is disliked by the townspeople – the less poor, middle-class, rich, and very rich alike – because of Rupert's brothers' habit of stealing cats. (Rupert returns them whenever he can.) They subsist on a diet of thin oatmeal gruel morning and evening, supplemented by whatever scraps his father can glean from local restaurants' dumpsters.

      Poor Rupert.

      Also "Rather Out-of-It" Rupert because he takes himself off to school one day only to find that there is no one there but him because … it is Christmas Day! But, as he is trudging home again past the houses of the very rich, trying to be thankful that he can walk in his own footsteps instead of having to break a fresh trail, he gets caught, literally, by the electric security system of a gate as it is closing, and it zaps him right into the garden inside the fence. And into Christmas dinner and evening with one of the very rich families from which the scene detailed above in the excerpt is taken. While it is against The Rules of the game that players feel sorry for the losers, several of the Rivers family seem to have twinges of conscience about Rupert's losses, and so they individually involve him in a series of quite incredible adventures. The first of these, Christmas Day itself, at least resulted in Rupert's getting a really good feed, unlike the following ones which seemed to be chiefly characterized by his being offered food that is never forthcoming, or promised food which is not delivered, or having the food intended for him snatched from under his nose. However, he does have a lot of remarkable experiences, including time travel and magical sparkly salads (which other people got to eat, but not him), and, in the end, he realizes two very important things: first, that "your life, no matter who you are, no matter where you [are, is] a unique and glorious thing", and second that library cards are free, really free! (As an almost-retired librarian, that is a revelation that I would wish on everyone!)

      Rupert is a wonderful character. He is brave, intelligent, and resourceful; he doesn't hold grudges; and he accepts the things that come his way, good and bad, with equanimity and without blaming the other guy. He doesn't even resent the fact that the very rich son of the family, who is only a year above him at school, has never bothered to focus on him hard enough to learn his name and so calls him Roddy throughout. Rupert's a bit passive, but given the knocks life has dealt him, he is remarkably ready to take chances, and, if he has to look a bit silly as he tries to power Uncle Henry's time machine by smuggling it into the museum where the original red witch's slippers from the Wizard of Oz movie are exhibited in the hopes they might have some magic left in them, then he's prepared to do it. We could all learn something from Rupert!

      The book, itself, is funny, not in the ho-ho-ho side-splitting sense, but in the ironic, eye-brow-lifting, 'how could anyone be so insensitive/stupid/ignorant…supply-your-own-adjective' sense. The fact that Rupert doesn't find this attitude at all unreasonable is proof enough that, while this presents an exaggerated picture, it does not provide a totally unreal one. And that is something that should give us all pause.

Highly Recommended.

Mary Thomas is, as she has said, an almost-retired librarian in the Winnipeg, MB, school system where she hopes breakfast would not be denied a hungry kid because his brothers might have stolen a cat.

To comment on this title or this review, contact cm@umanitoba.ca.

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