Thursday, May 17, 2018

A Kestrel for a Knave (Valancourt 20th Century Classics) Paperback – July 7, 2015 by Barry Hines (Author), Mark Hodkinson (Foreword) (Valancourt Books )

This is not an especially pleasant book. It is a slice of the life of a poverty-stricken schoolboy trapped in a dying coal town in the English midlands, post WWII. What makes it striking is that even now young Billy Casper could step off the pages of any U.S. urban newspaper, fifty years later. Only his race would have to change.

He lives with his mother and a loutish older brother. His father has completely disappeared. His mother can barely shelter them, and Billy survives mostly on the proceeds of a paper/parcel delivery route, plus some artful-dodger pilferage. He is also small for his age, which places him low in the pecking-order at his comprehensive school, where he endures much ridicule not only from his schoolmates but from some of his teachers. What is it about English schools? High or low, their faculties always seem to contain a couple of near-psychotics. For example, Billy is too poor even to wear underwear, regardless of weather, and certainly cannot afford any “kit” for games. His soccer coach, a typically hearty type, considers this an insubordination and punishes him by making him don an adult pair of trunks, grotesquely gathered and rolled to stay in place. He then banishes him to goalie duty, where Billy, utterly untrained - by the same coach - has nothing to do for long periods and then blunders in the crises. More ridicule.

But Billy is resourceful. He is a sharp observer of the world around him, especially the woodlots and fields which surround his village, and he becomes curious about the predatory birds which circle above. He locates a nest of fledgling kestrels, and after stealing a book about falconry from the local library, decides to capture one and train it. The rest of the story recounts his efforts. He succeeds, gains at last some confidence in himself, and enjoys a measure of recognition of his achievement from one of the more normal instructors at the school.

To go further would spoil the story, but the ending is not happy. The striking thing to me was the ability of the author to evoke the many feelings I remember from my own life at that time. It in no way resembled Billy’s, being comfortable, middle-class American, but our experiences seem deeply connected

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