The long way home
'Journey' books, tales of, generally, displaced children finding their long, difficult way to home and/or safety, represent a strong tradition in children's literature. Amongst the great classics are Anne Holm's unforgettable I Am David (1963) and Maurice Gleitzman's devastating Once (2006). There are even variants with animal protagonists rather than human ones, epitomised by Sheila Burnford's The Incredible Journey (1961).*
Similarly there are, and have been, many books for young readers with dystopian settings. One of my recent favourites is another outstanding book, Sally Gardner's Maggot Moon.
What author Fiona Shaw does in Outwalkers, her first book for young readers, is combine these two elements. Her story is one of an orphaned youth and his dog attempting an often nightmarish journey of escape from the clutches of a horrendously controlling, compassionless state. The fact that this near future dystopian England realises some of the worst fears about current extremist jingoism adds considerable chill to her tale. Even so, it has to be said that the core concept and context here are not the most original ever. However, in compensation, Fiona Shaw's storytelling is quite brilliant and her narrative makes compulsive reading from very first pages.
Quite some writer
She is clearly a very experienced and skilled writer. Her use of language is never obtrusive yet always strikingly communicative, brilliantly evoking scenes, events and feelings and, supremely, the constant breathtaking, gut-wrenching tension of her tale.
A good deal more of her success lies with the vivid conjuring of her characters. Of course 'one-boy-and-his-dog' is always a potential heart-winner, but, way beyond this, the author quickly establishes protagonist, Jake, as totally human and 'real'. In me, he almost immediately evoked committed empathy. His perilous escape from the 'care' of the State-run Home Academy, at the opening of the narrative, soon found me sharing his hopes and fears as well as feeling every one of the cuts and bruises it costs him. To use common parlance, this book had me from page one.
Even so, it is not until a few chapters in, when Jake meets up with the small 'Outwalkers' gang, that the story comes most fully into its own. The bringing to life of this little group of disparate, diverse young people is a work of writerly genius. Each leaps straight off the page into the our imagination, and our heart-felt affection. When Jake proves himself as one of them, inside the gang but outside the law, the story swiftly develops into being as much that of the whole group as of Jake individually. Their various expressions of courage and commitment, of fear and insecurity, of anger and love are completely involving. The every changing dynamic of their interrelationship is continually enthralling, but ultimately it is their commitment to their cause and to each other that is so affecting.
Add to this Fiona Shaw's quite masterly plot building, which cleverly and continually throws these characters from one tense drama into another. What you have, in consequence, is a viscerally exciting and at times almost heart-stopping read. I was so committed to these characters that I breathlessly shared every horrendous episode and just longed for things to turn out well for them. Not that they always do. In fact this is probably not a read for younger children, not because the writing is inaccessible or over-challenging, but because of its intense emotional impact. This is in many parts a devastating read. It is a hideously harrowing experience, even if ultimately a hopeful one. This, however, is the very thing that engenders so much involvement.
Dare to care
The truly terrifying nature of this dystopian England, also racks up exponentially as the narrative develops. Fiona Shaw's book ends up doing for our era very much what George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four did in the 1950s. The society she brilliantly brings to life is every bit as grim, every bit as terrifying as his - perhaps, for us, even more so, because it relates so closely to our own times. This is the world of our own fears and nightmares, representing the negative, but very credible, corollary of attitudes currently being expressed and political paths even now being pursued. How exaggerated a picture it may or may not be is one of the very pertinent questions this book asks.
Yet at heart, in something of a contrast to Orwell's classic, Outwalkers, is not really a political story; it is a human one. It is the story of Jake's journey with his dog, of his strengths and failings, his courage and his fears, his vulnerability and his resilience, his dogged determination. But nor is it his story alone. It is that of his whole Outwalker 'gang',
In the end, this is a book that says, and says with persuasive and compassionate conviction, that we are not alone. That however dangerous and hostile the world may seem there are others who can and will support us. That however uncaring may seem the society, the world in which we live, there are others who care, about the world, about each other, and about us. It we find them, if we work together with them, if we help and support them, then they will do the same for us. Together we can, perhaps, beat the system. There is a price. For some a huge price. But collectively we can survive. We can win. Perhaps. There is at least very real hope.
It is an important message.
Up there with the best
Outwalkers is as affectingly powerful a human drama as just about any young people's book I have read. In this respect I would put it into the same category as, say, Michelle Magorian's much loved Goodnight Mister Tom, or, indeed, any of the other modern classics I mentioned at the top of this review.
And if you were thinking that moving to Scotland might not be a bad idea, this could just be the clincher!
*All three are, thankfully, still in print.