I first heard about this book in an interview given by Frances Hardinge, an author whose work I absolutely love. Her new book, Cuckoo Song, was published in early May and, when she was asked about books which influenced her writing of that story, she mentioned A Rag, a Bone and a Hank of Hair and how much she loved it as a child. It sparked my interest immediately.
First published in 1980, A Rag, a Bone and a Hank of Hair is hard to get now – which is where having a good relationship with an obliging bookshop can go a long way. The edition I have is the one pictured (badly) above, a reprint issue from 2007. It’s a short, fast-paced and deceptively simple book which ends up making a huge statement about humanity and morality, all without getting too caught up in fancy language or over-explication. It’s a lesson, in fact, in how a good story doesn’t need too much embellishment.
As the book opens we are introduced to Brin Tuptal, a twelve-year-old genius with an IQ of 180, who is being ushered into a meeting with the Seniors of his city. Straight away, the reader is struck by the strange reversal of roles – Brin, the child, is shown deference; the elders are the ones who are ‘lesser’, and Brin speaks to them without consideration for their age – at least, at first. Brin is owed – and demands – respect, due to the fact that he is young, and therefore priceless. He lives in a future version of earth in which the human population has been decimated due to a long-ago nuclear disaster which resulted in a rapid loss of fertility and a massive drop in birthrate. Children are prized, and spoiled.
Brin is interrogated about his world and its norms – a very quick (if rather graceless) way of alerting the reader to the strangenesses of this future Earth. One of the questions he is asked concerns Reborns – what are they? Who are they? What use are they? – and we realise that the Reborns are clones, cooked up from leftover genetic matter. But they are not clones of people who are living, or even those recently deceased – for what would be the point in cloning, and bringing back to life, a person who was sterile, as the vast majority of people now are? These Reborns are people from the distant past whose genetic material (i.e. their remains) have been used to ‘reanimate’ them. The Seniors tell Brin that he will be included in an experiment to see if the Reborns are the answer to repopulating the planet, without telling him exactly what the experiment involves.
Brin is then ushered into a room which looks utterly different to anything he’s ever seen before. It has something called a ‘range’, and an icebox, and a fireplace, and a wireless, and battered old furniture, and it is small, and low-ceilinged, and dark… Brin is told then that the Reborns he is about to meet lived during 1940, and this room is designed to mimic the environment they would have been used to. Two children – Brian (the name is significant) and Mavis – then appear to him, along with an older lady whose relationship to them isn’t really explained. She is called Mrs Mossop, a hard-working woman who never takes a moment’s rest. The children begin to play with Brin, introducing him to things like toast and Marmite, and ludo, and Monopoly, and talking incessantly about Hitler and the war. He tells them that he is to live with them until his uncle Rick arrives from the Bahamas to collect him – but there is no uncle Rick, of course. He meets with no resistance, because the Reborns have been programmed to accept him, and not to question where they are.
But if they leave the room that the Seniors and their scientists have recreated for them, something dreadful will happen…
Brin goes back and forth between the experiment and his own world, gradually realising that he likes Brian, Mavis and Mrs Mossop more and more. He begins to see that they are individuals, people worthy of respect and dignity and not mere lab-rats to be experimented upon. He knows that the Seniors have plans to destroy them, beginning with Mrs Mossop, and he knows he has to do something – and then, out of a moment of desperation, something like a miracle occurs. Something the Seniors could not have anticipated…
A Rag, a Bone and a Hank of Hair is one of the most unique books I’ve read. As I said at the start, it’s not a sophisticated book, certainly not by today’s standards, but it’s definitely one that’s hard to put down. The language is simple, the descriptions basic, the dialogue expository and not terribly nuanced, but it’s the characters which bring this book to life. Mavis, Brian, Mrs Mossop and Brin, in particular, along with Tello (one of the Seniors) jump off the page and immediately demand to be loved and taken to heart. The slow unfolding of Brin’s realisation – that past ages were not peopled with mindless savages, and that the cold cruelty of his own age is comparable with anything that could have been done in the the past – is touching, and, as Frances Hardinge said in the interview I linked to at the top of this post, the twist at the end really made me think.
I’m not sure this is a book which would appeal to kids of today, and I think that’s sad. There’s a lot to be gained from reading it, particularly in relation to ideas of individuality and the value of the human spirit. I was struck, too, by how much of the ‘futuristic’ society has already come to pass in one way or another, particularly the ‘state’ having access to all your personal data, and every citizen having to wear an ID which contains everything about them and which must be surrendered to any authority figure on demand… In a way, it mimics the ‘papers’ that everyone had to carry in wartime Britain, but in another it’s a scary reminder of how centralised power can rob the individual of their personhood, and how much of our humanity we lose when we allow machines to run too much of this world in which we have to live.
Or perhaps that’s my innate techno-skeptic coming out again.
Anyway, if you can get your hands on a copy of this book, I’d recommend giving it a go. Bear with it in the opening chapter or two, and you’ll be rewarded with a thoughtful and philosophical little tale.