A mentally disabled boy tries to navigate his way through World War II–era Britain in this historical novel.
Spruzen’s (Lily Takes the Field, 2013, etc.) latest work begins during the Blitz; teenage Jamie Jenkins resides with his grandmother, who makes a scarce living cleaning houses, and his abusive cousin Roy Beck. Jamie’s mental “slowness” makes him oblivious to much of the depravity that goes on around him, but a German bomb destroys any protection from the real world he might have had. After the attack, Jamie’s life takes a Dickensian turn. He loses his grandmother and is passed from one terrible guardian to another, including a murderous farmer and an unfeeling home for the disabled. Meanwhile, Roy finds out Jamie knows one of his dark secrets and begins tracking him down to protect it. Eventually, their journeys intersect with a German spy’s mission, and Jamie faces life-or-death consequences. Along the way, he struggles to understand each situation he finds himself in and, with the help of a few kind friends, learns to leave his own mark on the world despite his many disadvantages. The well-researched story delivers some well-rounded characters and a few surprises. Although Jamie is mostly portrayed as a stereotypical innocent, simple-minded victim à la Oliver Twist, he gains some agency toward the book’s end as he constantly strives to make himself “more clever.” Unfortunately, he still spends most of the novel being shuffled from one terrible experience to another with very little say in the matter, which makes for a disheartening read. “A little of this and a little of that. That’s people,” Jamie observes about human morality. Yet far too many of the characters are only one thing—angelic martyrs or evil tyrants. And Jamie remains trapped between them, constantly being abused by the latter and saved by the former.
Despite the rousing historical background, this sentimental orphan tale remains grim.