Bobby Burns knows he’s a lucky lad. Growing up in sleepy Keely Bay, Bobby is exposed to all manner of wondrous things: stars reflecting off the icy sea, a friend that can heal injured fawns with her dreams, a man who can eat fire. But darkness seems to be approaching Bobby’s life from all sides. Bobby’s new school is a cold, cruel place. His father is suffering from a mysterious illness that threatens to tear his family apart. And the USA and USSR are testing nuclear missiles and creeping closer and closer to a world-engulfing war.
Together with his wonder-working friend, Ailsa Spink, and the fire-eating illusionist McNulty, Bobby will learn to believe in miracles that will save the people and place he loves.
Although this distinctively British novel contains a dark quality and mystical overtone that will be familiar to Almond's (Skellig; Kit's Wilderness) fans, the story's underpinnings are very much grounded in reality. In September 1962, Bobby Burns enters a new, elite school (for which students must qualify by exam) in his coal-mining community outside Newcastle. Bobby's reflections, enhanced by powerful images of nature ("And all the time the careless stars looked down and showed how tiny we were and how insignificant we were and how maybe we just didn't matter at all"), convey the young protagonist's uncertainties and a sense of the world itself being on the cusp of change. Bobby is worried about his survival at school, where corporal punishment is practiced indiscriminately, and how this "opportunity" may affect his future. He is also concerned about the well-being of his father, who has become ill, as well as new acquaintance Mr. McNulty, a half-crazed fire-eater who performs various forms of torture upon himself in exchange for a few tossed coins. Bobby's growing tensions mirror the fears of the townspeople as the Bay of Pigs drama plays out, drawing families, friends and strangers together for a brief but intense period of time. Besides providing a moving portrait of a boy's growing pains, the author expresses the camaraderie within a working-class community and the love within Bobby's family. Sensitive readers will marvel at Almond's ability to show, not tell, with his highly introspective at times enigmatic writing style. Ages 8-up.