I've been talking a lot about unreliable narrators in my children's book reviews lately. Not entirely sure why that is. I guess it may have something to do with the fact that I've been seeing a lot more of them popping up in kids books lately. The other day I read and reviewed "Max Quigley, Technically Not a Bully" which had the advantage of being the kind of unreliable that is evident right from Chapter One. Then I recently had the good fortune to stumble on author Kate Thompson's early chapter book "Highway Robbery". I liked the cut of its jib. Its easygoing style and plucky hero. I had also heard it was a good unreliable narrator tale, and I was willing to go along with that, but there was nothing indicating to me that the main character was unreliable in the least. Then I got to the end and the whole premise tipped itself over backwards and around. Slim and exciting, Thompson's newest isn't quite like anything out there. And that's a good thing.
As our young ragamuffin street kid will tell you, he wasn't bothering anyone. Just minding his own business when this elegant gentleman and his magnificent horse pulled up and spotted him. The man offered our hero a real golden guinea if the boy would just watch his horse for a while. The boy agrees and there begins his troubles. Everyone from girls to farmers to villains wants to take a closer look at the horse. It isn't until a regiment of soldiers arrives, however, that the truth comes out. This horse is none other than Black Bess, owned by the highwayman Dick Turpin. Now the soldiers want the boy to remain so as to lure Turpin into their clutches. Does he dare refuse? And when the story is done, will you, the reader, believe a word that's been said?
Kate Thompson is the author of "The New Policeman" and its sequel "The Last of the High Kings". And to be blunt, I was not particularly fond of "The New Policeman". I thought it had quite a few nice ideas, but it didn't enthrall me. The text seemed too slow and the pages too many. So, admittedly, I was reluctant to even pick up "Highway Robbery" at first. When you get right down to it, though, I think that the entire reason I like this book so much has to do with the fact that it does what I wanted "The New Policeman" to do. It's quick, it's to the point, it's funny, and it's immediately engaging. With this book I can see that Thompson can write a fast-paced and furious title when she has half a mind to do so. And huzzah for that, says I.
The funny thing about the story is that it almost reads like a stage play. In fact, if you wanted to turn it into a one-act play for kids it would be exceedingly easy to do so. The main character spends most of the book barefoot and standing in one place. There is one fast-paced chase sequence, but that's easy enough to fake on a stage. No, the impression one is left with is that this was originally a play that Thompson adapted to a book. It's like the "Horton Hatches the Egg" of Dickensesque middle grade novels. Our hero is given a job that he sees through to the end, no matter what the outcome. Considering the nature of the story, this could also have been a short story spun out a bit so that it becomes an early chapter book. Hard to say how it started.
There's a strange moment in the book where our lad (strange that he doesn't have a name, isn't it?) has to make a decision and the decision that he makes is later regretted. Near the end of the tale two villains try to steal the horse and are stopped by the King's men. Our narrator is suddenly given a choice. If he says that one of the men is the guy who gave him the horse in the first place he'll get paid AND Dick Turpin won't get caught. If he doesn't, then Dick could get caught and the boy may get nothing. In the end, he turns in the villain, which he seems to bitterly regret later down the line. You don't usually find protagonists regretting the arrest of villains, but this boy (at least in his head) has quite a few moral conundrums to work through.
Illustrator Jonny Duddle does a fine job of bringing the boy's story to life. Interestingly enough he renders the human characters, particularly the narrator, as almost comic book types. There's not a great deal of realism there. Black Bess, on the other hand, is never anything but 100% realistic. I also enjoyed how Duddle took care to obscure your view of the horse in the first picture in the book. You see our hero talking with a tall well-dressed gentleman, weaving the story we're about to read. In the boy's hands are reins, and just the tip of a horse's nose behind him. For all we know, the horse is a nag or an elegant beast. It's entirely open to interpretation.
Of course the ideal pairing with this book is alongside Sid Fleischman's "The Whipping Boy". Both books employ similar jovial narratives. Both take place in the past. Both show the cream and dredges of society. Both are well illustrated with pen-and-ink pics. And, most important of all, both are remarkably short little tales. "Highway Robbery" will definitely appeal to the reader reluctant to pick up a book longer than 100 pages (this one has a mere 117 and a large font) and it provides a slam-bang story from start to finish. Strange and a reading delight, kids will get a kick out of this. Whether they trust the narrator or not is another story entirely.