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That Boy Red by R. Gilmore

Gilmore, Rachna. That Boy Red. Toronto: HarperTrophy, 2011. Print.

That Boy Red by Canadian author Rachna Gilmore is an engaging, lightly humorous, episodic novel suitable for young readers ages 8 to 12. Set on a Prince Edward Island farm during the Great Depression, it tells the story of the MacRae family through the focal character of middle child Red, who is about the same age as the book's intended readers. Red is an excitable lad whose quick temper and jocularity often land him in trouble he later regrets. One immediately thinks of comparisons–Anne Shirley, Tom Sawyer, or Brian O'Connal in Who Has Seen the Wind–but the similarities only go so far. Red's unique quality is a moral compass (coupled with sensible familial guidance) that always steers him back to thoughtfulness and the tone of the book is lighter than some of these classics, being driven more by dialogue than poetic descriptions.

The novel's six episodes are distributed throughout the seasons of a calendar year, and each one focuses on Red's relationship with a different family member, which provides Gilmore the opportunity to develop the family as a cast of rounded characters. Ellen, the eldest, is the teacher at the local school and lives with the family. Alex and Mac are Red's older brothers; Alex is away at college, while Mac is slightly older than Red and shares a good-natured rivalry with him. Lucy, or Bunch for short, is the youngest of the family. Other characters, such as Red's stern grandmother Cat-Less Granny, also make appearances.

Red's parents are practical, hard working, and possessed of some remarkably effective parenting skills. Times are tough, but it is their steadfast ambition, indeed the family mission, to finance the advanced education of each child with the salary of an older sibling, as he or she gains well-paying employment: Ellen is paying Alex's college fees, Alex will pay Mac's fees, and so forth. The entire family has accepted this vision, but that doesn't mean Red finds school particularly motivating. For him school means enduring the taunts of other boys and studying when he would rather be tinkering in the woodshop. Ultimately, though, he comes to understand the value of education, and this is nicely figured in the final episode when Red goes up in an aeroplane. From a high vantage point, he senses instinctively the freedom of the sky, the connections between places near and far, and the way this new perspective sets him apart from others in the astonished community not brave enough to take the plunge with him.

Red's ride in the sky tells us that he will eventually leave his home, but the story itself remains firmly grounded in the locales of the farm and surrounding community, which we see through the varying seasons: the swimming hole in summer, and the snow drifts on the railway tracks in winter. Much of the action involves dashing or trudging along the paths that cross the back lots of neighboring farms or riding to town to meet the train. Overlaid on these comings and goings are the routines of rural life: evening chores, family meals, and church on Sunday. These will not be the most riveting of plot events for readers looking for whizz-bang action, but they serve as a kind of rhythm for the larger story that pulls the reader along.

Gilmore's language matches the scale of events in the narrative: direct, with occasional colourful turns of phrase, but not bombastic. The humour does not jump out and surprise the reader, but it serves as a kind of protective blanket that envelopes everything–even serious matters like accidents–and recalls the sense one has as a child, while still absolved of adult responsibilities, that, somehow, things will turn out all right. Gilmore neatly represents the states of mind of a young person who senses the machinations of the adult world without understanding them. In this Bildungsroman, Red begins to encounter the responsibilities of adult life at the same time that he discovers the special place his family has given him.

Highly recommended: 4 out of 4 stars
Reviewer: John Huck

John Huck is a metadata and cataloguing librarian at the University of Alberta. He holds an undergraduate degree in English literature and maintains a special interest in the spoken word. He is also a classical musician and has sung semi-professionally for many years.