by Cat Weatherill, illustrated by Peter Brown. Knopf, 2006.
This is the story of Barkbelly, a wooden boy. He starts out as an egg which falls from an airship on the way to market. The egg lands in a farmer’s field and is thrown up during the harvesting, hitting a kindly farmer on the head. He takes it home and gives it to his wife because it is beautiful and strange. No one in that village has ever heard of or seen a wooden person that hatched from an egg. By accident they happen to stimulate the egg to hatch by throwing it into the fire. When Barkbelly emerges from the egg the farmer’s wife, who is childless, falls in love with him and adopts him as her son.
Barkbelly has a pretty happy childhood with his new family, growing up in a few weeks and going to school. He makes friends. He is strong and seemingly indestructible. He loves playing games with the other children, but when he misjudges his strength tragedy occurs and he is forced to flee the village to save his life from angry crowd. He runs off into the world and travels for days until he stumbles into a large town where he finds work in a factory. Because he is wooden he can work harder and longer under dangerous conditions and he excels at his job. He is doing fine until there is a fire in the factory and he rescues the owners’ daughter. He becomes a hero and they want to put his picture in the paper. He becomes frightened that his name will be known and his terrible secret will be revealed so he flees again.
After traveling alone and frightened for many days he comes across a traveling circus. He is delighted with his new amazingly kind and entertaining friends and is able to join the circus as a worker and later an entertainer. He makes friends with some of the older members of the troupe and one of them tells him that wooden people such as himself are from a place called Ashenpeake. Ashenpeakers are well known all over the world as wooden people that hatch from eggs and are frequently sold into slavery. Barkbelly is floored. His people are known? There are others like him? A whole island home of them? And sold into slavery???? He immediately wants to find his homeland and his family. He makes plans to leave the circus and travel to the coast to find a ship that will take him to Ashenpeake.
Unfortunately, the ship with which he finds work and passage turns out to be a slave ship. By accident, stumbling around in the hold looking for supplies for the cook, he comes across crates full of eggs from Ashenpeake and he puts two and two together. The friendly, respectable captain that he has been admiring is in the slave trade and is shipping his people toward bondage. Barkbelly tries to free the eggs by throwing them overboard. The captain turns on him and has him thrown into a cage, to be sold with the eggs at the next port. While Barkbelly is sitting in the cage trying to think a of way to escape pirates take over the ship. There is a fire in the hold that gets all the eggs to hatching. The pirates free Barkbelly and treat him well. Barkbelly tries to convince them that the eggs and the now rapidly growing toddler wooden children should be freed from impending slavery.
At this point the story really jumps the shark for me. Up until now I was enjoying it immensely and willing to go along with the improbable. I wondered at the way no one had ever heard of wooden people in Barkbelly’s hometown but yet accepted him as a person without batting an eyelash. I wondered at how the man in the circus could be the first time Barkbelly ever heard of Ashenpeake. What about the factory where he worked? They never heard of Ashenpeake slaves? The ship’s captain took him on as crew without wondering about a free Ashenpeaker? But when Barkbelly stands up on a crate and give his one impromptu speech about freedom and morality to the pirates, and they listen thoughtfully, I lost the willing suspension of disbelief. The pirates are lazy, sure, and cheerful and easygoing, OK. But sentimental? Compassionate? Easily persuaded to give up their hard won booty? Impulsive enough to get a kick out of throwing gold overboard just for the rush? I don’t think so. My enthusiasm for this book deflated like a day old party balloon.
After that Barkbelly and the wooden toddlers are put ashore on Ashenpeake. I don’t remember what happens to the toddlers, set loose on the island with no families or tutors. The pirates go off to their hideout to rest up and reunite with their happy families. Barkbelly goes on with his quest to find his family. I’ve lost interest in the story here and can’t get the inconsistencies out of my head. I won’t tell you the ending because it is just too disappointing. I can’t even discuss the adoption theme because it is so stereotypical and trite. Since I have adoptions in my family I have become far more critical of stories about adopted kids and orphans that are written with little relevance to reality. Barkbelly has a lot of angst about being adopted and not knowing his biological family in this story, which I appreciate. But the shallowness of his adoptive family and the negative stereotype of his first family really bothers me.
I was recommending this book to others for the first half of my reading it. I was enthusiastic and delighted with the writer’s charming style. The language and imagery is fine. I just don’t think the story holds together. I don’t usually write reviews about books I don’t like. I just felt that after my initial burst of gushing over it I ought not to let you hanging. Has anyone else read this book? Liked it? Agree with me? Have another take on it? I’d love to hear your opinion.