The first thing I’m going to say about ‘Maggot Moon’ is this: Do not read it in a public place.
Perhaps I should clarify that.
Public Announcement: Do not read Sally Gardner’s award-winning novel ‘Maggot Moon’ in a public place if you’re anything like me, and you get deeply emotionally affected by the books you read, and you’re prone to showing those emotions, viz. through displays of tearfulness, wailing and/or clutching your napkin to your face and sobbing into it.
I read ‘Maggot Moon’ in a café, and I’m probably barred from it for life as a result of my reaction to this book. I wept, my friends. I wept, in public. Am I sorry? Heck, no.
‘Maggot Moon’ is a gutsy, unashamed, powerful novel. Its dedication reads: ‘For you the dreamers, overlooked at school, never won prizes. You who will own tomorrow,‘ and that spirit of defiance and combativeness runs through the core of the story. This is a book about those who struggle, and those who make a stand against tyranny and evil, no matter what the personal cost. This is a book about bravery, family, friendship and love – and, most importantly, how not even the most brutal regime can crush these most precious and fragile things.
The book is narrated in the voice of Standish Treadwell, a fifteen-year-old boy with the reading and writing age of a child ten years younger. He is upfront about the fact that he cannot read or spell, that he sees the written world differently from everyone else, but this is far from being a ‘handicap’, or a drawback, for him. In fact, it is one of his greatest strengths. Standish has immersed himself in language, in the spoken word, and has a natural talent for understanding coded, indirect and hidden speech, even when the words he hears are spoken in another language. In his own words:
I may not be able to spell, but I have a huge vocabulary. I collect words – they are sweets in the mouth of sound. (Maggot Moon, p. 24)
His ability to understand spoken language propels him on his journey, and even saves his life. I loved Standish – the way he thinks, the way he speaks, the depth with which he loves, the courage behind the decisions he makes, and the loyal devotion to his family and friends, all make him a memorable and deeply affecting character.
Some of the phrases in this book are pure Standish – he says things like ‘hare’s breath’ when most people would say ‘hair’s breadth’, or ‘glad drags’ when the more usual way of saying it would be ‘glad rags’; reading his unique take on language made the hairs stand up all over my body. His voice opened up language for me, creating worlds within words and making me see things in a completely different way. It’s a thrilling experience, going along with Standish on his adventure – his unique language and phraseology re-makes the world for the reader, making everything seem slightly off-kilter – and, of course, this is not just for effect. Standish navigates his own world in this same slightly off-kilter way; he is different in a world where being different is a death sentence. We feel his alienation and his sense of being oppressed through the way he uses language as much as through the way he describes his life at school, his treatment at the hands of bullies and cruel teachers, and the gradual picture he builds up for us of the country he lives in, and the regime he exists under.
Many images of oppression in this book are chillingly familiar. The story is set in 1956, but it’s not the 1956 we’re familiar with. It’s an alternative vision, a world we could have lived in. A totalitarian regime is in place, with those loyal to ‘the Motherland’ in charge; salutes and jackboots are the order of the day. Physical violence is common – not only does Standish receive beatings, but there is a terrifying – and stomach-churning – scene near the middle of the book when a teacher takes out his frustration on a student, to horrifying effect. This is not a world which rewards the weak. The Motherland is about to launch a rocket into space, designed to colonise the moon and place a weapon on its surface, from whence to launch an attack upon her enemies; the Obstructors, or underground resistance movement, are doing their best to subvert it. People who show any form of non-compliance (including Standish’s parents) are regularly ‘removed’, and anyone who does not help to spread the Motherland’s propaganda is considered a dissenter. Life struggles on in the midst of all this horror – children go to school to be taught noxious lies and to be brutalised by their instructors; adults try to scrape together a living, nobody trusting anyone else, and the Motherland pushes forward with its military regime at the cost of its citizens’ lives. The world of ‘Maggot Moon’ is not our world, but it is all too easy to imagine.
Standish lives with his grandfather, and befriends Hector Lush, a young boy who, along with his parents, moves in to the house next door. The relationship between the two boys, including their plan to build their own spaceship and discover their own planet where they can live in peace, and their attempts to find a normal space in which to live, and simply be, without fear or pain, is one of the sparks behind the story; the Motherland does not permit the sort of loyalty and affection that Standish has for Hector and the other members of his small family, and so the stage is set for a showdown. As the story progresses we learn that not only are Mr and Mrs Lush not what they seem, but neither is Gramps, Standish’s brave and resourceful grandfather, and when the boys end up embroiled in a conspiracy that goes to the heart of what the Motherland is all about, they receive help from the most unexpected places.
It’s difficult to do a review of this book without giving too much away. Suffice to say that a point is reached at which Standish has had enough of the lies he is being fed, and he makes a decision which will impact not only his own life, but the lives of everyone. He is willing to sacrifice all that he is for the sake of love and family and truth, and when you read this book you’ll know which scene tipped me over the edge into full-on blub mode. I defy anyone to read it and not weep, for the sheer beauty that is Standish Treadwell is not often found in literature, and even less in life.
This is a book to read and treasure, to recommend and pass on, to remember. It is a book to celebrate. Read it, and read it, and read it again.
Happy Saturday! What are you going to read today?