Friday, July 18, 2008

Book Review: Just Henry, by Michelle Magorian

I don't know if you've noticed, but the world isn't the most cheerful of places to be lately. Economic misery. Food shortages. War. Genocide. If I were a kid today, I'd want a good book to take me away from it all. Michelle Magorian's Just Henry is also set in a difficult time--in post war Britain (1949), when rationing is still in effect, when houses still standing are lived in amongst the ruins, when people's fathers are called deserters or heroes, regardless of the evidence.

Henry Dodge's father is one of the heroes--a man who saved another solider, but died in the effort. Henry now lives with his mother and his stepfather, Bill Carpenter, in Swansea, but Henry misses his real father terribly. Indeed, Henry wants to be just like his father: he aims for manual labor, instead of book learning; he despises his stepfather, who goes for a High School Certificate despite the fact he works on the trains; and Henry shuns the boys whose fathers are not so heroic--the sons of deserters and the illegitimate.

But everything changes for Henry when he enters his last year of school. First of all, he has a teacher, Mr. Finch, who is interested in him and his fellow last-formers, even though they've been written out of higher education because of poor exam results. Mr. Finch gives them a project--they can research whatever they're interested in, but they must research the topic as it was in the Victorian Era. Henry is obsessed with film--he works at the local grocery to earn money to go to the cinema--so, of course, chooses early cinema as his topic. Too bad the other two boys, who also choose film, are the sons of a deserter and an illegitimate boy.

Henry's world soon turns upside down. His Gran, who lives with Henry, Henry's mother and stepfather, warns Henry against associating with these two boys. But Henry's teacher and a new friend--an intelligent and independent woman named Mrs. Beaumont--tell Henry he must work with the social outcasts. Henry soon learns that his assumptions of others are ill-founded and that the world is changing. Henry must face the old world in order to live in the new.

There are many twists and turns in Just Henry's plot, so there's no point in outlining them all. This is a book whose pages you'll have to stop yourself from turning . (Or reread, if you just can't help speeding ahead.) Henry is a great character--one who grows up, adapts to the times, and finds his own way. There's much wish fulfillment in Just Henry. All the young people find a place in the new Britain. But, maybe, wish fulfillment and Just Henry is exactly what young people need today.

Just Henry is highly, highly recommended for all people ages ten and up.

Just Henry was one of three books I wanted to find during my 12 days in the U.K. I checked every major bookstore I could find in the Highlands. Nothing! It was backordered. Finally I found an independent bookstore in Banchory where I picked up an autographed copy.

I checked re: U.S. publication dates and could find nothing.
Michelle Magorian is author of one of my top-10 books for children: Goodnight, Mister Tom.