A Different Boy
A & U Children’s, 2018
112pp., pbk., RRP $A14.99
Anton is lost, lonely, hungry and bewildered as he is led into Wolfdog Hall, a home for boys without parents. He is handed his tag – O. Muller – and told the O is for “Orphan” although he will most likely end up as a C – ‘custody’ or ‘criminal’, the tag for those who try to abscond. As gloomy and as dismal as his future, which was to have been on the great ocean liner he can see sailing to “a warm, sunburnt country -a land of sweeping plains and rugged mountains which ran down to golden beaches surrounded by a jewel sea,” Anton soon finds himself between a rock and a hard place. He is either going to be strapped by a brutal teacher for drawing a rude picture of him or be beaten up by the boy who did draw it for dobbing on him. But then he recalls his dead’s fathers words – ‘If you’ve got a bad deal, get out of it and move on.” – and so he walks out of the orphanage altogether.
His steps lead him to that ocean liner but how is he to get aboard with no boarding pass, no family, no money and no luggage? Is he doomed to be returned to the orphanage and fulfil the officer’s prophecy?
Confronted on the first page by just two paragraphs of text surrounded by razor wire, it is obvious that this is not going to be one of Paul Jennings’ more light-hearted stories. And indeed, it isn’t. Despite its initial appearance as a stepping stone for newly-independent readers, this one has a lot of twists and turns that need a more mature mind to get the most from it. Although Australia is clearly identified as the “New Land”, Anton’s origins are not defined beyond being a country that has recently been devastated by war, which may resonate with some readers, and the events on board the ship are complex, especially the final resolution.
As an adult reader, this is Jennings at his best but don’t be misled thinking that this is one for younger readers. That said, it is unique, different and utterly absorbing for those who are ready for it.