Wednesday 6 March 2024

Death and the Carnegie Medal by Paul May

Death has always been a presence in Carnegie Medal winning books. The third winner, Noel Streatfeild's The Circus is Coming begins like this: "Peter and Sarah were orphans. When they were babies their father and mother were killed in a railway accident, so they came to live with their aunt." This is an extreme example of how children's authors get rid of the parents to allow the children some agency. Roald Dahl did a very similar thing in James and the Giant Peach although he waited until the second paragraph to dispatch James's parents by means of an angry rhinoceros.

Both Streatfeild and Dahl are just clearing the ground before they start their stories, cutting the protagonists free from those pesky parents. Books like The Lantern Bearers and Tulku do the same thing in a more organic way, but although people die in both these books, death is not central to the stories. There are other winners with high body-counts, like Ronald Welch's Knight Crusader or Garfield and Blishen's The God Beneath the Sea, and there are books like Philip Pullman's Northern Lights or Susan Price's The Ghost Drum (now available in a shiny new edition by the way!) where visits are made to the worlds of the dead, but in none of these does death take centre stage the way it does in Siobhan Dowd's Bog Child or in Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, the winners of the Carnegie in 2009 and 2010. Both these books are about living and dying and although they are very different they are both outstanding examples of what is possible in a children's book.

(Spoilers!) Bog Child starts with the discovery of the body of a young woman buried in the peat on a mountainside. She is small, and at first those who examine her think she's a child, perhaps recently killed and buried. It turns out she was buried nearly 2000 years before and has been preserved by the bog.

This is a story about death as sacrifice. We hear the story of the girl in the bog (the protagonist, Fergus, names her Mel) through the dreams of Fergus. If indeed  they are dreams. The device is very effective. It is essentially a parallel story to the one told in the present but a kind of supernatural empathy across 2000 years enables Fergus to experience it. This kind of thing is hard to pull off, because if you think about it for two seconds you know it's nonsense, but Siobhan Dowd makes it work, partly because the modern-day story is so strong that it carries you along, and partly because archaeologists always speculate about what might have happened—make up stories in other words.

This is Northern Ireland in the 1980s and Republican prisoners in Long Kesh are on hunger strike. The IRA bombing campaign is at its height. Fergus's dad is an IRA sympathiser though not, as far as we know, an active member. Sacrifice is very much in Fergus's mind because his brother has joined the hunger strike, willing to sacrifice his life for the cause of . . .  well, here's how Joe explains it to Fergus and his mum:

"See, Mam, it's like this. I'm not a common criminal. What I did was fight for freedom. (I don't think we ever know why Joe has been sentenced to 10 years in prison) I'd rather die free in my own head than live like the dregs of the earth. And that's how they treat us in here, I swear to God.'

Earlier, before they've learned that Joe has joined the hunger strike,  we've seen the McCann family around the kitchen table, eating a 'fry' and discussing the body Fergus has found, and the hunger strikers:

'Thank God Joe's not part of it,' Mam said.

Da nodded. 'It's an odd thing when you thank God for your son not having to make a sacrifice like that.'

Mam grunted. 'Sacrifice? Some sacrifice.' She reached over to Cath and forked a grilled tomato from the plate's edge towards the centre. 'Eat up, Cath.'

And then: 'Sacrifice is what Jesus did. He saved us all. Who did Bobby Sands save?'

Back in AD80 food is scarce and Mel's father, it later turns out, is starving himself to save his family. You could have called this book Hunger and it would have made perfect sense. Fergus agrees with his mam about sacrifice, but none of Fergus's arguments have any effect on Joe when Fergus and Mam visit him in prison. 2000 years earlier Mel also sacrifices herself, but she sacrifices herself to save her family. 

We also see that Joe is the protegé of Uncle Tully, and Uncle Tully is revealed to be a bomb-maker. His bombs kill innocent people, including the young British soldier who has become Fergus's friend, though Tully would regard the soldier as a 'legitimate target.' So is that what Joe is sacrificing himself for? There is a lot to think about here.

Even the short extracts I've quoted demonstrate that this is a rich and complex text, this despite being written in plain, economical language. There's not room to do it justice here but it's a remarkable book that I'd urge anyone to read, adult or child. There's also plenty of in-depth academic style discussion of the book that you can find on the internet. I was very curious to know how the book is perceived in Northern Ireland so I resorted to Google and discovered that the then Ulster Unionist leader, James Nesbitt, had called for it to be banned in schools. You may remember that Melvin Burgess was amazed that many of the critics of Junk hadn't bothered to read the book, so I was amused to find this:

"Let me be clear, this is not an attack on the book,” said Mr Nesbitt. “I have not read Bog Child, so have no opinion on its value as a piece of literature. But I have read the teaching notes, as endorsed by the Department of Education and I am stunned by what I  read,” he added.

The Graveyard Book begins with a brutal murder. The killer murders a mother, a father, and a child, but an eighteen-month-old toddler escapes. The toddler enters a graveyard where he's taken under the protection of its inhabitants, dead and undead. 

I'm a fan of toddler bids for freedom and I've witnessed quite a few in real life. I was cycling along a busy country road in Norfolk on a summer's day in 1977 when I saw a two-year-old on one of those tricycles you propel with your feet approaching me on the other side of the road. I could see the entrance to a small housing estate a couple of hundred metres ahead so I turned the toddler around and ushered him back along the road (there was no pavement). Moments later a distraught-looking dad emerged from between the houses and swept his son away. He'd only turned his back for a few moments, he said, and the boy was gone.

Anyway, Neil Gaiman's toddler is named Bod, short for Nobody. The mysterious Silas agrees to be his guardian. Silas is neither dead nor alive and doesn't venture out in daylight, so the informed adult and no doubt many children know what Silas is (though it turns out he is reformed). And Bod is fostered by a Mistress and Mr Owens, who have been dead for several hundred years. One of the joys of this book, and there are several, is Neil Gaiman's knack of creating fully rounded and engaging characters with a few well-chosen words. I nearly said he brings them alive, but most of them are dead.

There is a proper plot in this story, that involves a secret organisation of killers rather like the historical Order of Assassins, or like the mysterious underworld organisation in the John Wick movies. They call themselves the Jacks of all Trades. The existence of Bod is a threat to the very existence of this organisation, and that's why his family have been targeted. Bod survives a number of dangers, including a trip to the underworld of the ghouls, but he is remarkably brave and resourceful, even while making very human mistakes. The book is dark and funny, and even has a bit of romance thrown in, and at the end, and this isn't really a spoiler, a teenage Bod walks off into the rest of his life in much the same way as Fergus does in Bog Child.

Both books have great endings, and I do love a great ending. 

Siobhan Dowd died far too young in 2007, before Bog Child was published. The Siobhan Dowd Trust was set up in her memory and there's a link below to its website, but I see that the site hasn't been updated since about 2017.

Siobhan Dowd Trust

Paul May's blog/website. I repost all these Carnegie posts on my blog so that anyone who's interested can find them easily and in chronological order.




Sue Purkiss said...

I remember reading, liking, and being impressed by both these (very different) books. Thanks for reminding me of them.

Penny Dolan said...

Both wonderful books, Paul.
Thank you very much for this post and reminding me of both titles.