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It's snowing! And there's no school today--perfect for reading. My only regret is that I will not be reading THE REAL BOY for the first time, and will have to find my magic elsewhere.
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By Anne Ursu
Illustrations by Erin McGuire
Walden Pond Press, 2013
Every now and then, reading a new book, I know within a page or two that I am in the presence of greatness. Being mostly Irish, I usually experience a spasm of negativity: “If I live to be 100, I’ll never write this well,” I mutter, tempted to throw the book across the room. But I soldier on (especially if I’m reading on a Kindle) and pretty soon the negative feelings are overwhelmed by the wonder of it all.
The most recent instance of this was Anne Ursu’s THE REAL BOY. One page in, I’d already noted the lovely writing, but that left me unharrowed. Then I read this: “The Asterians didn’t call themselves anything special, because when everyone else refers to you as the shining people, you really don’t have to do it yourself.”
And, a page or two later: “The apprentice’s name was Wolf, because sometimes the universe is an unsubtle place.”
Beautiful writing AND a wry narrator? Oh dear.
I’d read Ursu’s BREADCRUMBS a few years before. I liked it very much, but it didn’t really stick with me. This one will be in my head and heart forever.
As usual, the key is the main character. A young boy, Oscar, is the “hand” to a magician, spending his days in the cellar under the shop processing herbs that he grows and harvests outside of town. He is happy only when his schedule is regular, he’s surrounded by cats and plants, and he doesn’t have to deal with his fellow humans.
We find out early on that, while he is very smart and very skilled in his work, he is mystified and frightened by other people—he doesn’t know how to read their expressions, and struggles to find the literal meaning in the most frivolous comment. This an achingly beautiful rendition of autism—not as a disease or even a condition, but as part of who Oscar is. Sometimes it’s a barrier, sometimes an advantage. Marvelous.
Oscar lives in the Barrow, the most magical place on the island of Aletheia. The magic is in the soil, and therefore in everything that grows there. The Barrow surrounds the base of a tall hill, on the crest of which is the gleaming town of Asteri, whose wealthy residents rely on the magical goods the Barrow craftspeople create.
But all is not well. Children in Asteri are falling ill in mysterious ways, and a monster appears to be roaming the countryside. Something may be happening to the soil’s magic. In the grand tradition of authors torturing their characters, it’s not long before both the magician and his apprentice depart the scene, leaving poor horrified Oscar to tend the shop and deal with an increasingly panicky populace.
Oscar’s progress from cats to courage is utterly believable—inevitable, in fact. There are a couple of very cool surprises—one that tells you, “Hey, this is Pinocchio!” followed by a second that rearranges your brain cells all over again.
Oh, and by the way—everybody has dark skin, but it’s not an issue. It’s mentioned in passing in the text, confirmed by the wonderful illustrations. Yay.
I can’t possibly recommend this book enough. If you write books for a living, though, get your self-esteem in order before you start it.
Dear FCC: I bought this book because I liked the cover. I’m reviewing it because I had no other spiritual choice.