Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Whipping Boy

I had assumed that this would have been more violent.  In fact, the title put me off in elementary school when this was on a reading list.  I do remember several of the boys in my class reading it and thinking that they had somehow "fooled the teacher" because it was a really short book.  Because the teacher obviously knew nothing about the reading list she handed out.  But such is the way of the fifth grade boy.

Flash forward a gazillion years.  I was scouring the shelves for books with large enough faces on their cover illustrations for me to tape a paper mustache on the cover (it's for a library display.  Don't judge).  I noticed that The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman had survived our recent, badly needed weeding, and the copy we had didn't smell like death.  I flipped through the pages and figured I could finish it pretty quickly.


The Whipping Boy isn't an awful book.  It's not a bad book or an offensive book.  It's just a very ... blah book.  It had potential to be funny in places, or poignant in others, and instead it just slid back into blandness.  It's not really a bad blandness, but it's a bit tiring, like when you've had a stomach bug and you really want something tastier than applesauce and toast.  There were bits where Fleischman briefly touched something with the potential to be very funny or very silly, but they slipped away from the narrative as quickly as they came.

It's a really simple story.  Once upon a time, in a kingdom (I know not its distance from us, so I cannot say whether it was far, far away or not), there lived a king and his son, Prince Brat.  That's not the child's given name, but it might as well be, because he was maligned by his father and his subjects alike for his horrid behavior.  However, the heir to the throne cannot very well be punished corporeally!  Enter Jemmy, the latest in a series of whipping boys to take the strokes intended for the prince.  It's like spanking by proxy.  Jemmy, having had a Dickensianly hard life, takes his new position in court rather stoically and simply refuses to cry out when he's beaten.  This irks Prince Brat, who orders him to scream and whimper and snivel.  No dice.  Jemmy tries to bargain his way out of the job, but then he realizes it does have its perks.

Perks?  Really?  Well, Prince Brat is so vile that he refuses to learn to read and write, and because of this, he's whipped.  Jemmy is always close at hand for the whippings to take place straightaway.  Being of a sensible nature, he learns to read and write while the Prince remains an ignoramus.

Then the Prince runs away and drags Jemmy with him, whereupon they are promptly captured by highwaymen who eat lots of garlic (I have no idea; I'm just going with the story).  Several chapters are devoted to arguments amongst the two criminals and their captives.  Eventually, Jemmy and the Prince escape, get captured, escape again thanks to a trained bear and his lady-owner, and become fwends.  Awwww.

Aside from the utter lack of any compelling story, what really irked me was Jemmy's unconditional acceptance of Prince Brat's reasons for behaving like a brat.  "Oh, no one hugs me.  Oh, no one likes me.  Oh, no one really cares about me.  Therefore, I will be a jerk!"  And Jemmy's like, "Hmm, he's got a point.  Let's go catch some rats in this birdcage I dug out of a riverbank!"  And he's supposed to be the clever one!

The ending is unsatisfactorily happy for a book with such a grim aspect.  I would have much preferred a Series of Unfortunate Events approach, but I suppose that's simply asking far too much.

Also, I did not think the illustrations by Peter Sís added anything to the story; then again, I am not a particular fan of that illustrator, either.  His recent "biography" picture book of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was particularly wordy and irritated me by reminding me exactly how many times I had to read that bloody book as a French major (hint: far too many times).  Bah humbug and all that jazz.

Avoid at all costs, unless you are a masochistic list-completer such as myself.

No comments:

Post a Comment