Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Fridrik Erlings's Boy on the Edge

Some books stay in my mind long after I've finished them. Some books stay in my soul. Fridrik Erlings's Boy on the Edge is one of these.

Written for young adults and translated by the author himself from Icelandic, Boy on the Edge is the story of big, ugly Henry, with his club foot and his stutter and his fear of reading aloud, son of an abused, alcoholic mother who is little more than a prostitute. Sounds bleak, but it's not. It's one of the most uplifting books I've ever read. Henry does not find happiness; Henry earns it.

Shunted from school to school, bullied past the breaking point, Henry snaps. Tragically, the person he hurts is the only one he loves: his mother. He is sent away to a reform camp run by a half-crazy evangelical minister on an isolated sheep-and-dairy farm far out in the Icelandic countryside. Arriving, scared, silent, resentful, he has his first brief hint of a future that could be different: The minister's wife, Emily, is making pancakes.

Writes Erlings: "There was this wonderful smell he'd never smelled before, and the sound of batter being poured gently into a frying pan, where it crackled briefly in melted butter, giving off an amazing scent."

Despite the pancakes, all is not well on the farm, either. The minister is a tyrant; Emily is unfulfilled. They have different visions for their reform school--and vastly different methods. The minister preaches hellfire and damnation and locks misbehaving boys in a dark basement room, visiting only to kneel with them in prayer. Emily, instead, teaches Henry how to milk the cows, feed the sheep, and clean up the manure: He was the King of Dung, collecting the dues from his subjects, filling the wheelbarrow. … He was somebody. Who would have thought? 

Of course, the thrill of being the King of Dung wears off. But throughout the book, the peaceful rhythms of the farm, the glory of the nearby sea, the danger of the sea cliffs, the pounding of the rain, the treacherous lava field, with its ruts and cracks, the brutal butchering of the bull, the happy cavorting of the cows in the spring, the serenity of the moon in the vast night sky, and the busy-ness of the little birds play counterpoint to Henry's efforts to understand himself.

The rain showers arrived from the ocean and the snow melted into the lava. One day a green knoll of moss appeared from under the snow and the southern winds rounded up the fluffy clouds and made them gallop across the sky. 
The promise of spring laughed in a brook and whispered in the yellow grass at the swamp. It shook the ptarmigan in flight with a playful gust of wind, which made it spring into the air, brown-breasted and white-winged.

Henry tries hard to make friends with some of the other reform-school boys, only to be disappointed over and over again. Ultimately, his striving for friendship leads to disaster--as, simultaneously, the fabric of the reform-school is unraveling. Then, in a tense and brilliant ending, Erlingsson allows Henry, almost in spite of himself, to succeed, finding not only friendship, but love.

Like Halldor Laxness's Brekkukotsannall, published in English as The Fish Can Sing, Boy on the Edge uses a child's coming of age to examine the failings of society, contrasting city and country, new ways and old, and reaching a compromise in which tradition can be honored and modernity embraced. How should we live in the world? How should we love one another? The answers are in Boy on the Edge.

Boy on the Edge by Fridrik Erlings was published in the U.S. by Candlewick Press in 2014. It received a starred review as one of the best books of the year from Publisher's Weekly, which judged it "poetic and powerful." I highly recommend it.

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