Friday, April 13, 2012

The Scarecrows by Robert Westall

First published in 1981

The Scarecrows was first published in 1981 – it’s more of a recent children’s classic, but rightly so, because it’s one of the best contemporary children’s novels I’ve read. I say contemporary even though The Scarecrows does have elements of horror and the supernatural – but these things arise out of the main character’s psychological trauma. The way Westall does this is seamless and powerful. Some of the content is quite daring – a few of the passages would not make the final edit these days, I feel – but at the same time, it feels like they need to be there. These things make us understand the fear, isolation and confusion Simon feels as the realities of being ‘grown up’ push their way into his life.

Simon is thirteen years old and The Scarecrows deals with how he copes in the face of his mother’s remarriage. He feels betrayed by her, and he feels she has betrayed the memory of his dead father. At boarding school he is often taken aback by fits of rage, which he describes as the devils coming in. When his mother remarries and he goes to stay with them at Mill House, the devils chase him there too, and eventually get the better of him in the climax.

What I loved about this book is the perception in it. Simon’s thoughts and feelings ring so true. Often when I come across a passage in a book that ‘just gets it’ – where the emotion and insight is just so spot on, often where it cuts into your heart – I dog-ear the page (bad, I know) so I can come back to it later and savour the perfection. There were a lot of dog-ears in this book.

Westall was so clever when he created the Simon character – I think certainly he is unlikeable, but we always understand where his actions and thoughts come from. He is never whiny or sulky or bad-tempered – he is just hurting, and we can feel this. He is quite funny and endearing, in his own way. We know he cares. We know that he knows many of his actions are wrong. But we understand why he does it. Just brilliant characterisation. I particularly loved Chapter Four, the scene with his mum in the car. It plays out so perfectly – Simon knows he is making things worse, is digging himself deeper and deeper. But he can’t, won’t, give in: when you’re hurting so much the only way to stop it is to make yourself hurt more – this just leaps off the page.

The Scarecrows is genuinely, for a kid’s book, scary. And what makes it even more terrifying is that the horror comes from the ugliness of human emotions. This is a psychological thriller at its best. Three scarecrows in a field and a decrepit mill – in Westall’s hands, these things are truly frightening. When Simon first sees the scarecrows in the field and goes to investigate – I think my eyes were bugging out of my head. Great atmosphere. Simple, but effective writing.

I also found this book to have a great balance. There is some genuinely funny stuff, like when Simon climbs up the tree to spy on Joe painting. His stubbornness itself makes me smile. There is also great emotional truth. The periphery characters are fantastic – Jane is such a little creation, and Mr Mercyful commands the pages he’s in. And the historical back story never intrudes but only enhances the main setting and story.

The Scarecrows is fantastic and a must for school libraries. It is one of the only realistic/contemporary-based children’s classics in my Top 20 list. Past entries included below:

Number 20:  Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie

Number 19:  The Neverending Story by Michael Ende

Number 18:  Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt

Number 17:  The Toymaker by Jeremy de Quidt

Number 16: The Thirteen Clocks by James Thurber

Coming soon: Watership Down, by Richard Adams

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