Aiden Sullivan and Charles Wheeler are 11 and 12 years old in Boston in 1889. Aiden, nominally Catholic, nominally Irish, has no father and a consumptive, dying mother. Charles, an orphan who has already done time for stealing a sandwich, is living by his considerable wits on the streets. They connect early and plausibly in Connie Hertzberg Mayo's fascinating new novel, The Island of Worthy Boys.
shows the boys' daily scramble to make enough money for food and, in
Aiden's case, for rent to keep a tenament roof over his mother and
little sister. Desperation finally pushes the boys into rolling drunken
sailors on the waterfront, which works until it doesn't. One night, the
drunk grabs Charles who has just opened the man's pocket knife, and, in
horrible accident, plunges the knife into the man's gut. Worse, a woman
happens out of an alley door, spots the boys, and cries havoc. Charles
and Aiden now have to get out of Boston, but where?
the connivance of a friendly whore and an accommodating minister, the
boys pass themselves off as orphan brothers and are sent to the Boston
Farm School on an island in Boston Harbor. That the school's policy not
to accept boys with any kind of criminal record, which Charles has; that
there is rampant anti-Irish feeling in Boston in the period, which
means Aiden has to watch his accent; and that the school promotes a
heavy Protestant Christian ethos to boys guilty of murder makes the
island a refuge filled with tripwires.
At the same
time, the school offers school, work, shelter, and regular meals. The
book's middle section book dramatizes Aiden's and Charles's adjustment
to school life as the reader knows this idyll is too good to last. As it
The Boston Farm School on Thompson Island in
Boston Harbor was a real institution, and Charles Bradley, the
superintendent of the school in the book, was in fact the superintendent
from 1888 to 1922; his wife Mary was the school's matron. The school
was finally closed in 1975.
Mayo has taken the basic
factual information about the school and 1889 Boston society to create
two engaging 12-year-olds in Aiden and Charles. The novel works so well I
think because Mayo is able to evoke the times, the society, and the
thought processes of the characters. We see the world through the eyes
of Charles, Aiden, and Superintendent Bradley; they are all different,
and they are all convincing, given who they are and what they want.
Although the two protagonists of The Island of Worthy Boys
are pre-teen, which tends to cast a novel into the YA genre, I believe
this is a book adults and young adults can find rewarding. Young people
will be interested how Aiden and Charles fill their days in Boston,
scrounging for pennies, and at the school, adjusting to life with 98
other boys. Adult readers will be interested in Mayo's evocation of 19th
century assumptions about child raising, the era of "As the twig is
bent, the tree will grow." Bradley turns out to be an unusually
enlightened and kind reform school superintendent. I finished the book
pleased and satisfied, and, perhaps more importantly, convinced that the
lives Mayo has realized could have truly lived while the drama of their
story carried me along.