Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Irish Troubles Are More Interesting Than Iron Age Speculation

Fergus McCann should be having a great summer. He's on study leave to prepare for his A-level exams. If he can pull off three B's, there will be a place for him in a medical school, which is his get-out-of-town plan. His uncle is teaching him to drive. He finds a two-thousand-year-old body in a bog. He gets to hang out with an archaeologist who arrives to study the body, and he gets to make out with the archaeologist's hot daughter.

Bog Child by Siobhan Dowd could have easily been a book about one of those magical teen summers. But Fergus McCann's magical teen summer is pretty much wrecked by the fact that he's living in Northern Ireland in 1981, and his older brother Joey is on a hunger strike in Maze Prison. Ten men died during the hunger strikes at Maze in 1981, so Joey's family is painfully aware that his decision to stop eating could very well be a death sentence.

The magical realism aspect of the book, in which the Iron Age girl's story is told through Fergus's dreams, didn't work for me. Her fate and the one Joey has chosen for himself parallel in that both the dead girl and Joey are willing to sacrifice themselves for the culture they live in. Over all, though, I didn't find the bog child all that interesting.

Fergus and his struggles are. Bog Child is a historical novel, something we were talking about here recently. It's a good one in that the historical setting doesn't become instructive or overwhelm the proceedings and Fergus actually does have an interesting story, historical or not. Can he save his brother? Will he destroy his future trying?

Though I am not a big fan of all things Irish, I found myself greatly attracted to this book because its setting in time isn't one I know a great deal about. It was such a relief to be reading something that wasn't a paranormal romance, a mean girl story, a school based outsider tale, or anything that I've read before. Dowd, who also wrote The London Eye Mystery, really was a fine writer. This book was one I wanted to keep reading.

A question I was left with: The hunger strikers were seeking political prisoner status. However, in Bog Child we never find out what Joey McCann did to get sentenced to prison in the first place. Though there's much talk of Bobby Sands, we don't hear what he did, either. Can you be a political prisoner if you committed a real crime?

Sad to say, this book has been in my local library since November, 2009. I am only the second person to have checked it out.

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