The Outside Boy
by Jeanine Cummins
Genre: Historical Fiction
Summary: Christopher Hurley (“Christy”) is an 11 year old living as a tinker, a Pavee Gypsy that never stays put very long. His life shifts dramatically at the death of his beloved grandfather and he still longs to learn more details about his mother who died giving birth to him. His father has always avoided these conversations but his grandfather seemed to give him one last bit of information about his mother that no one else would.
With the patriarch gone, Christy’s father decides it is time to stop wandering the Irish countryside and give him an education and an opportunity to complete his first Communion. Christy has always dreamed of being included in the schoolyard games and learning in a classroom but quickly learns his family’s lifestyle might keep him forever an outsider.
Books that fall into your lap that turn out to be everything you hope for? THAT is why readers read. My neighbor was looking for my book recommendations for her family vacation. When she returned, she handed me this book. Since I lead my own book club and do all the research for finding our books, I feel pretty aware of “popular” books and I was completely unfamiliar with this title or author. Even better.
Cummins not only has a gift with words, I loved the way she connected everyday things to the overarching story. For example, in the beginning of the story, Christy helps his Grandda deliver a colt and the mare doesn’t make it through the delivery. “Maybe I knew the mare was going to die. Maybe that’s why I felt so connected to the little colt, because my mammy died, too, when I accidentally killed her as I was being born. I couldn’t help wondering if it was a similar night to this, if everyone waited, wretched and breathless, for the horrible news that was my birth. Such a common truth: a travelling woman heaving her own soul heavenward while her baby boy slips, squawking and bloody, into the rough and dirty world to take her place. There’s nothing worse than an ordinary grief.” It was heartbreaking to see how he would carry the guilt of losing his mother in childbirth.
Cummins also has a remarkable ability to capture the mind of an 11-year-old boy. Her descriptions were perfection: “Beano was the next to land, with his sister Kathleen in tow, and I knew it was him even before Martin said, “How’ya Beano,” because he just looked like the sorta fella who’d be called Beano. He was hard to forget: big and sweaty and shapeless, with hands like two ham hocks sticking out the arms of his tight red jumper. His black hair was matted acrosst his forehead in what might’ve been an effort at personal grooming. He even looked to smell like beans.” At times I laughed out loud, whether at her descriptions, or at the way an eleven year old boy would view the world.
Finally, I loved the charm of the narrator being so young. His excitement was tangible: “I was sure Saturday would never come. Something would happen. I would get hit by a howling train or a runaway heifer before then. Or I would catch consumption and die on Thursday. Or maybe I would survive on my deathbed just long enough for Martin to return from the party and tell me all about it before I would cough up my last bloody tumor and expire.”
The Outside Boy is charming and funny and yet it is also gut-wrenching and sad. The ending wraps up nicely, but not too perfect so as to ruin it. The story of Christy’s mother propelled the story forward constantly and Cummins’ beautiful prose made me want to read everything she has written. The Outside Boy has been my favorite fiction book all year and I highly recommend it to anyone.
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What is something that you discovered as a child that made you grow up a bit? What was the first great loss of your life? How did that affect you growing up?