Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Sneak Peeks with K.E. Weeks: Bog Child

This feature is presented by guest blogger, K.E.Weeks.
I picked up Bog Child by Siobhan Dowd ($6.80 :David Fickling Books; 2008) in the Teen Department of our local library, but I question if it should not be shelved in the Adult Department instead. The book is about eighteen-year-old Fergus McCann, a strong physics student studying for his A-Level exams to get into the university in Aberdeen in Scotland. The story is set in Northern Ireland in the 1980s, when there was a lot of violence—known as “the Troubles”— between the UK-occupying force and transplants to Northern Ireland (United Kingdom Protestants, mainly) and the Republic of Ireland and those loyal to their cause (independent nation, mainly Catholic). While stealing some peat along the border (to burn in the fireplace), Fergus and his uncle discover what appears to be the body of a young girl in the bog. Meanwhile, Fergus’ brother is in on a hunger strike in prison as a result of his activities with Irish nationalists.

First, the positives: the story is well-plotted. There are several subplots and these are woven together in an unusual way until the surprising climax. The story is interesting and engaging. The characters are well-developed and believable, and the protagonist faces real moral dilemmas. The descriptions of the landscape are vivid. Moreover, the story has a real Irish flavor. The dialogue is true to life, as is the vocabulary.

This “realism” has a downside, however, and it is that the book is so well-seeped in Irish vernacular and culture, that the average American will have difficulty understanding it. I am of Scottish descent (my mother is “straight off the boat”), and I struggled a lot with some of the vocabulary in this book. A teen with no UK background will flounder. The author assumes her reader knows all of the Irish situations and slang. For example, the beginning of the book talks about JCB and a JCB man. I still don’t understand what this acronym means. There are many instances like this. Perhaps the book was intended for Irish teens? Clearly, it was not written with a North American audience in mind.

Several other elements are problematic, as well. Spoiler Alert! (Skip the next two paragraphs if you do not want to know key elements of the story.) First, the book contains a lot of discussion of contraception. Fergus’ uncle is in the business of smuggling contraceptives to Catholic Ireland in the south. Also, Fergus and his potential girlfriend face a possibility of sleeping together (while their parents are in the adjacent bedrooms!) and discuss “protection.” At last, Fergus admits he is a virgin, and the two decide to spoon together in their pajamas for the night. This is a tame resolution, but not exactly the type of thing you would want your thirteen year old reading. (In the end, Fergus and Cora’s physical relationship does not go beyond kissing and light petting.)

In addition, there are other adult elements. The “bog child” Fergus discovers has been hanged, and the noose remains around her neck, only mildly decomposed because of the nature of the bog. Mel, the bog “child” who turns out to be a dwarf, “speaks” to Fergus in his dreams, so the reader learns how she died. It is an interesting story of love and sacrifice, but a little new age and macabre, too. This morbidity is mirrored by Fergus’ brother Joe who is on a hunger strike and slowly starving to death. These are grave, realistic situations that make me question if this book is appropriate for readers under eighteen.

Lastly, there is a lot of excessive drinking and “funny” stories of drunkenness. While I understand that drinking alcohol is legal in the UK at eighteen years old and so it is not taboo to have an eighteen year old pulling a pint, it is never constructive to have main characters drinking to excess in a teen novel.

While I enjoyed this book, I am hesitant to grant it any more than three stars (out of five) because of the inappropriate subject matter for younger teens and the difficulty most American readers will have in sorting out the situation in Northern Ireland. I would consider it only for your oldest and most mature students and as an opportunity to discuss your family’s feelings about pre-marital relations and other moral dilemmas. It would help if the student prepared by reviewing the conflict in Northern Ireland before reading the book.

Still, it is an interesting novel, with real-life moral dilemmas: Would you help a cause you disagree with to save your own family? To save innocent acquaintances? What if that cause hurts potentially hurts other innocent strangers? Who do you trust? Do you allow a family member to do something destructive to them if they do it knowing the consequences? Is starving oneself suicide? Why or why not? It would make a good discussion book for a parent and an almost-adult student.

I keep ruminating on one of Fergus’ conclusions: “We sin more by the sin of omission than the sin of commission.” In other words, we sin more by what we fail to do than by what we do. An interesting concept.....

Disclaimer: The purpose of this review is to guide parents into selecting appropriate, significant, high-quality literature for their teens and tweens. I have no connection with the author or publisher of this book. I am a home educator of two children, 12 and 14, with a Master of Art degree in American Literature and a keen interest in young adult fiction and nonfiction.

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