1068 The hazards of home school
by Iain Lawrence
Toronto: Penguin Random House (Margaret Ferguson Books), 2021
$17.99 / 9780823446551
Reviewed by Phyllis Reeve
“My memories were like the tombstones in the cemetery, chipped and broken, so jumbled around that they didn’t make sense. Maybe I was trying to connect things that couldn’t be connected.” By the time his narrator utters these words, Iain Lawrence has well and truly succeeded in his mission to make our flesh creep.
Deadman’s Castle is officially aimed at the Middle School crowd, readers age 9-12, but, like all his novels and like all good kids’ books, it is unofficially aimed at everyone. I have not been 12 for seven decades, and I could not put it down.
Here’s the teaser. The narrator, whose name might be Igor, or it might not, is listening to his father.
“A few months ago now, I saw someone do a terrible thing…. I went to the police and told them what I saw. And now there’s a very bad man coming after us…. He wants to get even…. Watch for a man with a lizard tattooed on his skin.”
“What do I do if I see him?” I asked.
“Run away,” said Dad. “Scream for help. Do whatever it takes, but never let him catch you.”
For seven years, Igor, his parents, and his little sister are fugitives. His parents are good home-school teachers, but it is a home with no fixed address and a classroom of one. As Igor nears his teens, he can stand the life no longer and breaks away to become part of a school and neighbourhood community. In so doing, he forces the standoff and in a very dark place confronts his worst fears.
Lawrence’s adolescent characters ring so true one would think he had been one himself. Besides Igor, whose name might be Billy, there are Zoe the Goth-girl, whose real name might be Fanny, and Angelo, who may be less tough than he pretends and has a three-legged dog named Smasher who is definitely tougher than he seems. We sympathise with the beleaguered parents and sense that within every character, even one who appears in a single chapter, there is a story to be imagined. Igor’s little sister, Bumble, is an incorrigible scene-stealer.
For publication purposes, the setting is various places around the United States, Oregon to Florida, Iowa to Idaho, but in his concluding note, the author admits that Deadman’s Castle and the Yellow House with their accompanying nightmare belong to a neighbourhood remembered from a Canadian boyhood.
Besides an adventure tale, with hairbreadth escapes and some sheer terror, Iain Lawrence has written about the importance of family and friendship and raised questions of identity and memory. Writing before the onslaught of Covid-19, he nonetheless dramatises the traumatic effects of prolonged isolation, all while having a great deal of fun.
Deadman’s Castle is Iain Lawrence’s sixteenth novel. His fifteenth, The Skeleton Tree, was shortlisted for the BC Book Prizes’ Sheila Egoff Award for Children’s Literature. He has been honoured with the Governor General’s Award (for Gemini Summer), the California Young Readers Medal, and the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award. The Writers Trust of Canada in 2011 awarded him the Vicky Metcalf Award for Children’s Literature, in recognition of “a body of work that demonstrates the highest literary standards.”
That body of work includes two series in the slam-bang adventure tradition of Robert Louis Stevenson and R.M. Ballantyne: The Curse of the Jolly Stone trilogy and The Wreckers duo. Other novels take young readers into real-life events: space flight in Gemini Summer, World Wars 1 and 2 in The Nutcracker Men and B is for Buster; the polio epidemic in The Giant-Slayer; a pony who accompanied Scott to the Antarctic in The Winter Pony. Wherever the stories lead him, Lawrence plunges into the research needed to get things right: albinism, munitions factories, seances, Kermode dragons, septic tanks, homing pigeons, and in this novel the witness protection program. The results are inevitably stories that excite, illuminate, and make grown-up readers cry.
In Deadman’s Castle Iain Lawrence, who lives on Gabriola Island, but whose imagination reaches far and wide into the outer and inner worlds, has given us the perfect Pandemic book, to be read by the 9-12s, by adults who love a good read, but maybe best of all to be read aloud by the whole family bubble.
Editor’s note: A version of this review appeared online in the Gabriola Arts Council newsletter. Editor’s additional note: Iain Lawrence’s Deadman’s Castle won the 2022 Silver Birch Fiction Award.
Phyllis Parham Reeve has written about local and personal history in her three solo books and in contributions to journals and multi-author publications, including the foreword to Charlotte Cameron’s play, October Ferries to Gabriola (Fictive Press, 2017). She is a contributing editor of the Dorchester Review and her writing appears occasionally in Amphora, the journal of the Alcuin Society. A retired librarian and bookseller and co-founder of the bookstore at Page’s Resort & Marina, she lives on Gabriola Island, where she continues to interfere in the cultural life of her community. More details than necessary may be found on her website. Editor’s note: for The Ormsby Review Phyllis Reeve has reviewed books by Michael Kluckner, Jack Lohman, Mona Fertig, Lara Campbell, Connie Greshner, Ken Lum, Ian Hampton, Robert Amos, and Joe Rosenblatt, among others.
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“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster