Barkbelly by Cat Weatherill

h1 January 10th, 2007 by jules

I have Kelly at Big A little a (actually, her mother) to thank for reviewing this book and making me want to read it. I just finished it and found it to be a delightfully original work (though you’d think it wouldn’t be, considering its premise — a story about a wooden boy). I just discovered, too, that Fuse reviewed it as well (and look at that snazzy, new cover she links to), but I’ll get to that in a minute.

Barkbelly by Cat Weatherill was an ’05 title in the UK, but we have Random House to thank for publishing it in June of ’06 and with minimalist black-and-white illustrations by Peter Brown (who also wrote and illustrated 2006’s Chowder). Weatherill is a performance storyteller as well as an author (“{s}he is as old as her tongue and a little older than her teeth,” she writes about herself on her site). This is evident when you read Barkbelly; its prose is straightforward and evocative at the same time and possesses a lyrical rhythm that made me want to skip forward several years, making my daughters old enough to sit and listen to such a read-aloud (alas, they are currently too young). Our hero may be a wooden child, but there’s nothing the slightest bit leaden or stiff or heavy-handed in Weatherill’s engaging storytelling.

I do have one gripe, though, one thing about the writing that made me oh-so sad, honestly, which I’ll get to in a moment if you will allow me to first briefly summarize the novel. I won’t say too, too much. I don’t want to reveal any spoilers for those interested in reading it. Having said that, let’s get right to it:

In the book’s imaginative opening, we are in the sky with a thievin’ star sailor in a flying machine. He has in his cargo crates and crates of wooden eggs. Thanks to a hungry, meddling parrot, one of the eggs falls down to the earth, landing — to be precise — in the tiny village of Pumbleditch. A kind, childless, elderly couple end up with the egg and are quite surprised to see legs and arms and then a real, live boy pop out of it after it is thrown into a fire. Thus, our protagonist is born. They fall in love with their new son and name him Barkbelly.

Much to everyone’s surprise, Barkbelly is the size of a two-year-old after just one day passes. A month passes, and he is the size of a ten-year-old. Needless to say, no one picks on Barkbelly either, what with his rapid growth rate and substantially sturdy, woody composition. Barkbelly’s father even accidently chops off Barkbelly’s hand one day, and lo and behold, it grows right back. Believing he’s indestructible and sometimes being a bit forgetful of his awesome strength, he is involved in a devastatingly unfortunate playground accident and immediately flees in fear and guilt from Pumbleditch.

And thus his adventures begin. Weatherill sends him to, of all things, a jam factory, the circus, and then — shiver me timbers — on a rousing pirate adventure of sorts. Along the way, he learns that people of his kind come from a particular island, which — until this time, of course — had been unbeknownst to him. He also learns a disturbing fact about how his race, if you will, of people are treated. Knowing his family must be on this island, he determines to find them, sets his course, and doesn’t give up ’til he finds the rest of the Barkbelly clan. Is he in store for some warm, maternal embraces or some tough love? Well, that’s for you to find out.

Weatherill brings us some truly poignant moments in this novel that really shine in their veracity. At the jam factory, his first stop after fleeing Pumbleditch, Barkbelly is drawn to a Miss Maddox, the Matron of the place. In Chapter 19, as he and Miss Maddox have a frank and comforting late-night talk after another one of Barkbelly’s frightening dreams, he discovers that the factory is really a sort of haven for lost people, particularly children fleeing from sad memories. He and Miss Maddox have a bittersweet and touching conversation about the ability of the past to cling to those trying their best to discard it:

“You can’t forget the past. You think you can, but suddenly something will remind you and — whoosh! — you’re right back where you were, bad as ever. You can run away, as fast and as far as you want, but you’ll carry it with you. It clings, like a flea on a dog. I don’t know . . . You can’t change things. You can’t turn back time. But you can make things better. Well, I hear some people can. It depends on what the trouble was.”

“I didn’t mean to do it,” said Barkbelly. “The thing I did . . . in the past . . . it was an accident. It was. But knowing that doesn’t make me feel any better. I can’t believe what I’ve done. I can’t forgive myself. And I can’t forget.”

“Could you go back, my plum? Could you explain? Apologize?”

“No,” said Barkbelly. “I couldn’t go back. It would make things worse. So much worse. If I stay away, perhaps in time they will forget me. I am not worth remembering.”

“Neither am I, my sweet,” said Missus Maddox. “Neither am I.”

But there, in the glow of the firelight, Barkbelly knew he would remember her. Remember this night, this room, this wisdom.

“Don’t you ever give up the fight,” she said suddenly. “Maybe you’ve done bad things, but you ain’t a bad boy. I can tell. And it ain’t wrong to want peace. So you go out there and find it, my angel. Search for it. Fight for it. Win it.”

A bit of foreshadowing? you wonder. Well, you’ll have to read to find out.

At the book’s close, I thought I knew exactly where Weatherill would be taking us, emotionally. And, hey, sometimes you think you know but are pleasantly surprised to find you’re wrong. I even flipped ahead a few pages, saw a particular illustration, and was practically already tearing up and being inspired both at the same time with what I thought would be a genuinely hearty and profoundly honest ending, far-reaching in its candor, one of the most wonderfully-constructed narratives about acceptance that I’d read in a long time.

But Weatherill decided to do something involving hedgehogs with magical spines (don’t ask; just read), an act that in and of itself was affecting and stirring to me as a reader — but with results that I found entirely too convenient and that went so precisely against that heartfelt ending I was expecing — and wanting.

I felt a little less insane about wanting such an ending after reading the aforementioned review by Fuse after I finished the book. Our literary minds think alike on this one; she also loved Weatherill’s writing but was disturbed by this hugely huge deus ex machina at the book’s close. If you’re interested, read her thoughts, detailed as always.

But, should anyone out there actually heed my reviews, please don’t let this stop you from reading this invigorating little read. Instead, experience it for yourself, and tell me what you think. And then leave me a comment or two, as I even found some of the book’s final words (before the wonderful afterword of a story) a bit mysterious — or it could be baffling. I haven’t figured out which yet.

If you like Barkbelly, check this out: an upcoming ’07 release of Snowbone by Weatherill, Snowbone being a character you’ll meet in Barkbelly. I say, bring it on! Let’s further the adventures of Barkbelly. Weatherill is one to watch.

6 comments to “Barkbelly by Cat Weatherill”

  1. Wow! I am seriously impressed that you located my review. I read that puppy almost a year ago and enjoyed it thoroughly at the time. For some reason the description of how good the wooden egg tasted to the bird at the beginning has stayed with me. But though I enjoyed the book I can’t decide if I want to read Snowbone or not. Are you guys game? Cause if you do it, I’ll do it.

  2. I’m game. I can try to get a review copy. Apparently, it’s slotted for a July ’07 release, I believe it was. Eisha, wanna catch up and read Barkbelly (assuming you haven’t yet) and then play with us?

  3. I’m in.

  4. I’m glad you enjoyed this one 🙂

  5. […] don’t get me wrong, but I expected something entirely different, much like where I thought Barkbelly’s ending was heading last year. I thought Martin was leading us on a journey that was going to […]

  6. GREAT BOOK!!!!!!

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