Coram Boy by Jamila Gavin 2000
Egmont UK Unlimited
IQ "Sometimes it was if Mercy had eyes everywhere that could see except the two in her head." pg. 231
Two cities, four main characters. The story takes place in both Gloucester and London, detailing the lives of Alexander, Toby, Aaron and Thomas. Toby was saved from an African slave ship, but his salvation comes at a price. Aaron is the illegitimate son of the heir to a wealthy estate. Both boys were saved by Otis, a man who accepts money for children and sells them into slavery (girls are usually sent to the harems of Turkey and North Africa), apprentices them to people around London, or sends them to America to become servants. Otis 'kindly' takes unwanted children off the hands of their parents, especially wealthy young mothers who have had illegitimate children. He tells these young mothers that he will take their children to the Coram Hospital. The Coram Hospital was started by Captain Thomas Coram, a place for unwanted children to be fed and educated and to be in a loving environment. Every mother who couldn't care for her own child wanted their child to end up there, Otis promised they would but his word was not always bond. Alexander is the heir of Ashbrook a wealthy estate, disinherited because he wants to pursue a career in music which his father doesn't understand and will not support. Thomas is Alexander's devoted friend since their childhood days in the cathedral choir.
Ok long summary I know but I wish I had had more information going into reading this book. The summary was too vague for my taste. But that's not really all that important, something that did really bother me about the book was how slow the plot dragged and how simplistic the plot was. It does not end 100% happily which was realistic but most characters were seen clearly in black or white. The few who had some 'gray' areas remained an unsatisfactory mystery, the reason as to why characters acted the way they did sometimes out of the blue, was never explained through dialogue or observation. *Spoiler: highlight to read* For example: why did Otis never get rid of Meshak? Was Otis a false 'Coram man' while his wife was still alive? If so, did she approve? If not, why did he start doing that? *End Spoiler* I think there needs to be a whole 'nother book on Otis, although that would be hard to stomach. There's SO MUCH going on this novel and unfortunately I didn't think the author was able to juggle everything. In the end while it may not have been happy, it was still very neat and convenient. Speaking of convenient, the magical/religious/fairy tale/what-have-you aspect of it made certain events more convenient but added nothing to the story. In fact I was confused more than anything. Oh and the AGES of the CHILDREN. I may be showing some ignorance/naivete but I had a really hard time believing two fourteen year olds as innocent as Melissa and Alexander could have sex. I would have believed it if they showed maturity. And I had a hard time picturing such daring eight year olds as Toby and Aaron....
I lapped up so much knowledge from this book about London in the 1750s, specifically concerning children's welfare. They were treated TERRIBLY especially the poor orphans. Even the wealthier children were still beaten or punished in some way into submission and they had little say in their future. Instead of parents being motivated by their terrible childhoods to change the way they raised their children, they continued the same awful traditions, sending them to the horrible Eton College or other harsh boarding schools (for boys). Girls were doomed to a life of monotony, if they were fortunate enough to be born welathy they could attend parties and art events, working class girls' lives were filled with work, work and more work. I couldn't believe it took so long for a Captain Coram to come along and try and start to change the way children were treated. He wanted to nurture them and make them self-sufficient. Furthermore, the way young Black children were treated! Toby is 'given' as a servant for life to the man who sponsored his stay at the Coram Hospital. This man, Mr. Gaddarn, dresses Toby up "like a miniature prince, in silk trousers and embroidered jacket with curling slippers and a bejewelled turban on his head. He would be given a silver platter laden with sweetmeats which he had to hand round to all the guests. The ladies adored him, and loved to bounce him on their knees, feed him sweets, and push their fingers under his turban to feel his extraordinarily crinkly hair" (pgs. 213-214). While I knew Black people were treated like animals back then, I had no idea that young boys (no mention was made of how young Black girls were treated but I can imagine *shudder*) were treated as 'pets' or 'playthings.' It was appalling to say the least.
Coram Boy received a high rating for me because I love history so I found all the historical details enthralling to read about. The author covers a diverse aspect of perspectives in 18th century London, from the mentally ill Meshak to the former-slave Toby, each portrayal is respectful and eye-opening. At times the tales are gruesome, after all, Otis and Meshak bury BABIES ALIVE and the author describes their pitiful cries in great detail. It's tough to read about but it is rewarding to truly see how far we've come concerning children's welfare and yet, how far we still have to go. The plot and characters could have been more complex, the various story lines more deftly handled with a messier, authentic ending. The children acted more mature than their actual age in some regards but in others they were so naive (14 year olds having sex, the 14 year old girl freaking out about 'getting fat'). A most excellent read for delving into (and comparing) life in London and an English hamlet and how people dressed, spoke, acted and were treated. An interesting tidbit: the book was adapted into a play.
*I am currently in D.C. on a one week women in high school political leadership conference! I will be back July 24
Disclosure: Received with many thanks from Tricia!