Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Digressions: A Boy and a Bear in a Boat, by Dave Shelton (2012)

To be clear up front, since Dave Shelton is an English writer still happily living in Cambridge, A Boy and a Bear in a Boat isn't eligible for this year's Newbery. But it's such an unusual book that I thought I'd put up a post about it anyway, despite the fact that it's disqualified from winning any of the big ALA-sponsored awards.

Though I found it arresting, it's fiendishly hard to know how to evaluate this one. It's bold and audacious, and I don't think it entirely works, but it's hard not to admire its courage.

This is a 300-page book with only two characters. Neither is given a name; they are only referred to as Boy and Bear. The Boy, for reasons left entirely unexplained, asks the Bear to row him across an unnamed body of water, to a destination identified only as "the other side." Their attempts to reach that other side constitute the entirety of the book.

The journey, which the Boy had anticipated would be a short one, drags on for days and days. They run out of food on multiple occasions. For huge swathes of the book, nothing is happening at all; the Bear rows, and the Boy attempts to find some way in which to occupy himself.

Enough plot elements are introduced and never given a payoff to make Chekhov cry. There is a comic book in the boat, left there by a previous passenger. It is in a language the Boy doesn't know, but he looks at it over and over again anyway. And...that's it. No explanation is ever given. Similarly, the duo arrive eventually on a Mary Celeste-like abandoned ship. It seems that something is going to happen...but nothing does. The ship simply exists, at least until the Boy puts a hole in it while trying to make tea on a gas stove, and we are never told why it was there or what happened to the crew.

Parts of the book have a certain humor to them, aided by Shelton's drawings, and other parts have a hypnotic, meditative quality. The prose, in places, is beautiful. But I don't feel like it ever truly confronts its insularity, or even hints at a reason for the lack of any kind of context. I compare it to something like Anne Ursu's book Breadcrumbs, which also leaves any number of things unexplained, but does so because they're things the protagonist has no way to know. Some of the things in A Boy and a Bear in a Boat could fit into this category, such as the parts with the abandoned ship, but it's hard to figure a plausible reason why every detail behind the Boy's journey remains so obscure other than the author trying to be too artsy.

I can't finish this review without mentioning the ending, so if you're spoiler-averse, turn back now. At the climax of the book, after a storm has destroyed the rowboat, and the Boy and the Bear are left floating alone in the ocean, the Boy begins rowing the bear, with a ukelele as an oar. And...that's it. Land is never sighted. The journey is never completed. Frankly, I've never read a children's book with less of a conclusion; it makes The Giver look like the Hardy Boys. The only books of any kind that I've ever read that were comparably open-ended are things like Kafka's The Castle.

I have no idea who the audience for this book would be; nearly all middle-grade readers will likely be frustrated by the hazy, molasses-like pace and the lack of anything like an ending, and adult readers who enjoy Calvino and Kafka and the more inaccessible bits of Eco will probably find that the book doesn't explore the interior of its characters in enough depth to be interesting. But you have to give Shelton credit for trying something different, no question. I gave it three stars on Goodreads because that seemed like a reasonable compromise, given the audacious ambition and flawed execution on display.


  1. Hi Sam. Thanks for this. I'm flattered to be given such a considered response. I disagree about a couple of things but, as you probably gathered, I didn't set out to write a book that would please everyone so, in a way, a bit of disagreement is a good sign.

    The ending does seem to be rather divisive. I had it pretty settled quite early on in the writing process and, for me, it's the only satisfying (lack of) conclusion that the book could have. And it's the bit I'm proudest of (along with, perhaps, the UK cover design).

    Anyway, thanks again. "Audacious ambition and flawed execution" will do me. I'll try to retain the former and whittle away at the latter in future works.

    1. Thanks for reading! And thanks for the comments. I feel pretty good about anything I write that can be labeled a considered response :) Also, I always enjoy any tidbits about an author's process and thoughts about a book's construction.

      I went and looked at the UK cover design since you mentioned it, and I have to say that I wish they'd used it here in the US as well. It's much more "hey, I wonder what this could be about."

      I'm looking forward to reading your next book, whenever it may come!

  2. Now I've got to read this one. Thanks for reviewing it despite its Newbery ineligibility. I'm going to have to stop reading this blog, because I want to read all these books instead of books for my committee appointment. P.S. great MLA presentation last week. Really enjoyed you two. Cheers.

    1. Aw, you're too kind, Tess! And thanks for coming to our presentation! It was great to have you there.

    2. Yes, thanks Tess!

      By the way, are you spoken for in terms of seat mates at the Newbery/Caldecott banquet? If not, want to sit with us?

    3. This will actually be my first Newbery/Caldecott banquet! What is the seating like? I'll be attending with 2 other ladies from my library system. Can we all sit together? 'Cause that would be cool. Are you going to the Stonewall Awards brunch?? (I know you're not. I just gotta get that plug in haha)

    4. Some of the tables are reserved, but the rest is general seating, so if we just meet up beforehand we can all sit together. Yay!

      I'll take a look at the timing of the Stonewall brunch and see what I can do. ;)