A novel examines the fascination, pity, and prejudice in an unusual child’s life as well as the challenges of dreaming outside the mold.
Hug Chickenpenny is a boy beset by misfortune and uncertainty. Born with a strange appearance—white hair, a stump of a left arm, a red eye, and a lumpy head—and orphaned from birth, he would seem to be in for a hard life. Although many at the orphanage look at him with sorrow or scorn, Hug nonetheless approaches the world with curiosity and optimism, looking past the petty slings and arrows of the harsher people around him and dreaming of exploration and adventure through rockets. But while some figures are sympathetic to Hug, like George Dodgett, a young employee at the orphanage, and a woman named Abigail Westinghouse, there are plenty of challenges to Hug’s positivity. These road blocks include people like Jennifer Kimberly, a cruel receptionist—and later, administrator—of the orphanage, and Dr. Hannersby, a scientist who studies “anomalies” like Hug and wishes to adopt him more as a pet and object of curiosity than a son. What follows is a complex, Dickensian tale of ambiguity and abnormality but, above all, hope. Zahler’s (A Congregation of Jackals, 2017, etc.) prose is solid, and the dialogue in particular shines, feeling natural without betraying the gothic style of the story. The characters are sometimes broad and archetypal, but that works in this sort of tale. They all have a certain edge, as even those with earnest affection for Hug can’t help but find some of his singular characteristics off-putting: “Something clicked and clacked behind the brunette, who then spun around to see what was happening. Hug was looking over his own back. His head was turned all the way around. Abigail shuddered.” Nevertheless, the narrative has a nonchalant tone that keeps the events from feeling excessively tragic even while they’re not overly sanitized. On the same note, the novel thankfully avoids depicting Hug as magical, presenting him as precocious without ascribing mysticism to disability. These are difficult balances to strike, and the book should be lauded for accomplishing that alone, even before getting to the charm and optimism that infuse the dark story.
An orphan’s tale delivers a delightful combination of tones and is bound to leave readers both smiling and thoughtful.