Tuesday, March 15, 2011

REVIEW: The Outside Boy, by Jeanine Cummins

The Outside Boy, by Jeanine Cummins. Published 2010, New American Library. Literary Fiction.

The Outside Boy is set in the rural Ireland of the 1950s, in a world far from the political problems of the day, in the itinerant community of the Irish Travellers. They are also called Pavees and, in a derogitory manner, tinkers (not to be confused with Paul Harding's clockworker tinkers, though). Jeanine Cummins' novel focuses on one such band of wanderers, the Hurley family, and on little Christy Hurley, a motherless boy traveling with his father and extended family.

Christy believes that his mother died seven minutes after giving birth to him, and he has been carrying this burden of guilt for all of his 11 years. As the story opens, Christy's grandfather has just died, and, per Traveller tradition, all of his belongings have been burned. However,  a newspaper clipping showing a beautiful woman wearing the same pendant Christy wears around his own neck escapes the flames. As the family has stopped in a small town to see to Christy's and his cousin's religious education, Christy befriends a local bookseller who helps him solve the mystery of the woman in the photo.

Most of this book I absolutely loved. The Outside Boy is an absolutely charming coming-of-age story. We see the work Christy has cut out for him when it comes to fitting in in the town, in school and with his peers, and we see how he struggles and how beautifully he succeeds in many ways. He has a crush on a pretty girl named Amy; she invites him to her birthday party and the party is one of the most charming scenes of pre-adolescent humor, awkwardness and tenderness I can recall. It is particularly memorable in encapsulating Christy's fish-out-of-water feelings as well as his desire to belong. He marvels at the plethora of food and the expectation presents, on the fact that a child's birthday is celebrated at all, and he shares moments of generosity and sweetness with Amy, his cousin Martin and another schoolmate. It's the kind of moment in a book that will stay with me forever.

I also loved the sound of the book. Cummins says in the introduction that she did not write it in genuine Traveller dialect (Shelta) because to do so would render the book incomprehensible; instead she writes the narration and the dialogue in a very genuine-sounding Irish voice that charmed me right away. And I loved the empathy and compassion she has for her characters. My quibbles are minor; towards the end, the story descends in melodrama and Christy does some things and has some insights that seem very mature for an 11-year-old (but would fit better on a 15-year-old). I liked it best (loved it, really) when the book focused more on Christy's coming of age and less on the drama.

Having said all that, I loved The Outside Boy and would recommend it to almost anyone looking for a great read. It's so sweet and tender; it made me laugh and cry and turn the pages, too. It also offers a look at a way of life that is probably little-known outside of Ireland and Great Britain. Beyond that, though, it's really just a wonderful story about a little boy trying to find his way in the world. I'm so glad I read it and I hope you do, too.

Here's the Wikipedia page on Irish Travellers.

This book counts towards the Ireland Reading Challenge 2011.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher.