|Imprint||Bloomsbury Children’s Books|
I can now confirm for sure that Lesley Parr has become one of my favourite MG authors. This is the third of hers I have read – avidly – and it’s not just the fact that they are set in Wales (home to my dearest friends) so I get to know a little more about that country but because her adventures are fresh and original and her characters so completely engaging and well-realised. This new one is set in the early 70s when life in the UK, particularly in Wales, was troubled and dark, figuratively and literally. The Coal Miners’ strikes were a fiercely fought battle to better conditions and wages for those who provided the means for the easy electricity for the rest of the country. In 1972, for the first time since 1926 UK coal miners again went on strike in a bitter struggle for their improved conditions. You can read more about this here.
For the working class it was even harder for those on ‘rationed’ electricity supplies as many workers were either not working at all or working only a few days a week. For Jason and his big brother Richie, life cannot get much worse. Both parents are dead and 18 year old Richie is doing everything he can to be parent and provider for 12 year old Jason, but with limited work (and insufficient wages even when it was full time) the mortgage payments on their house are becoming more and more impossible to maintain.
Jason has a good circle of friends, Catrin his next-door neighbour is first and foremost but then there’s also Jinx and Tam, each very different in personality and attitudes.
Their district is alive with the reports of a mystery ‘big cat’ spotted in the woods and reputedly killing stock and wildlife. When a competition is announced with £100 offered up for a clear photo of the beast, Jason and his mates are determined to win the pot – with the proceeds intended to help Jason and Richie. The brothers’ financial dilemma has also caused Richie to make a poor choice and get involved with the local thuggish thieves resulting in much angst and possible disaster. The kids’ quest for the beast is punctuated by dramas, both small and large, but throughout their camaraderie increases and the bonds of friendship strengthen as each discovers within themselves hidden depths and truths.
Whether the ‘Beast’ exists or not, what is a fact, as both Jason and Richie find out, that there are people who care and who are willing to go the extra mile to support them, not only in their grief but in the practical day-to-day new life they face.
The interactions between characters is wonderful. Jinx is a lively and ‘interesting’ boy who is deeply suspicious (jealous?) of Jason’s close friendship with Catrin, but as the adventure progresses and he gets to know, Jinx becomes increasingly comfortable, and even attached to Catrin. Tam, always the calm phlegmatic, ‘tree trunk’ of a boy, who prefers inaction rather than violence, realises that sometimes one needs to be more proactive. He also learns that not speaking of the dead, is tantamount to wiping their existence from record, and his awareness of how to respond to Jase’s grief is enhanced, restoring their former bonds. Catrin proves she’s not just a clever ‘swot’ and rule-abider but can be both innovative and creative when it comes to problem-solving. And Jason learns that not everything is black and white – sometimes there are shades of meaning, action and behaviours, and he begins to self-regulate his extremes of emotion.
This would make a great serial read-aloud for kiddos around Year 5/6 or even Year 7 and at the same time, offers them some insight into another time and place which is likely to be unfamiliar to them. Highly recommended for readers from around 11 years upwards.