Two young boys find friendship, adventure and an inventive way to take on a pair of bullies in first-time author Baker’s engaging novel based on his memories of growing up in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Time and place resonate in Baker’s colorful, empathetic but unsentimental tale of childhood set in 1960s New Zealand. Parents don’t hover, adults in general are inexplicable beings better to be avoided, radios outnumber TV sets, cellphones and the Internet are nowhere to be found, and play is what you invent, indoors and out. In this first-person narrative—with one slip into third person—the unnamed young narrator’s life is turned upside down by his new best friend, Wingnut, whose imagination and unintentional penchant for trouble lead to one adventure after another, often accompanied by scrapes and bruises. A neighborhood outsider, 10-year-old Wingnut—so named for his “big, sticky-out ears”—wears old, ill-fitting clothes and black rubber gumboots “with the tops turned down.” The boys become friends after Wingnut, “playing by himself as usual,” breaks his leg in a fall and the narrator helps him home. They soon bond over outdoor adventures involving a dangerous culvert, eel hunting, Dumpster diving, magpie attacks and the vicious Shulak brothers. After scary and painful encounters with the Shulaks, the boys decide to turn the tables, plotting their revenge with the aid of Wingnut’s World War II Army–themed comic book. The author maintains the integrity of the narrator’s voice throughout, recreating a child’s self-centered world with matter-of-fact observations of bodily functions, smelly shoes, juicy sneezes and other closely attended gross stuff. At one point, the narrator even steps on a long-dead, bloated hedgehog. Assumptions and perceptions are fixed until they’re not: The neighborhood “witch” draped in black turns out to be an interesting old lady with an acute sensitivity to the sun, and it turns out bullies can be stopped. But it’s still not a good idea to pee on an electric fence.
An entertaining tale of misadventure that enjoyably captures a young boy’s voice.