Wednesday, April 05, 2006

From the Archives: A Chance Child

This book came up on the Childlit list; it's one of my all-time favorites.

A Chance Child by Jill Paton Walsh. Farrar, Straus & Giroux,
1978; Sunburst, 1991 (0-374-41174-3) $7.95 trade pb

The theme of almost all orphan stories is a child's journey from loneliness and want to an ideal, true home--and often, the stronger the need, the harder the journey. This unforgettable book finds a new depth in that old theme, telling the story of a boy so far away from a home that he has to find it not just in another place, but in another time.

"The cut goes on, or back, from here," said the man. "I'll go back," said Creep. But he will never know how true his words were. For Creep, an unwanted and severely abused child, has lived all his short life locked in a closet, and when he escapes and drifts away down a canal he has no way of knowing that he is drifting into the past--or that his brother Christopher is searching desperately for him in the present.

The world Creep finds--one in which children work long hours at hard, dangerous labor--makes as much sense to him as any he's known. It is also a world in which his weak legs and lack of family make him no worse off than many others. Joining forces with a runaway named Tom and a horribly scarred girl called Blackie, he is at first only partially there: adults can rarely see him, and he is never hungry. But once Creep truly becomes part of the past he is able to carve out a life for himself--as good a life as any poor child could manage. And it is there, in the past, that Christopher will finally find him: in the eye-witness testimonies of the people who lived in that difficult, tumultuous time.

With vivid detail and sharply-defined characterizations, Walsh flawlessly evokes the world of poor children during the Industrial Revolution, as well as that of lower-class English children today. The contrast is pointed: athough many things have changed, life is still very hard for any child who grows up without love or respect. As might be expected, the ending of A Chance Child is not the unmitigated joy of the traditional orphan story, but a poignantly bittersweet triumph, both for Creep, who found love and happiness amid hardship and trouble, and for Christopher, who loses his beloved brother, yet rejoices that the unwanted child did at last find a home. * (10 & up)