Short-story author and poet Anne Fleming’s first run at children’s fiction is a quirky, riotous story that uses a preposterous conceit to deftly veil much deeper issues and themes.
A story about a goat roaming the exterior of an 11-storey Manhattan apartment building, the two children who set out on a quest to spot the animal (and thereby claim the seven years of good luck fabled to accompany a sighting), and the assortment of adults who inadvertently stumble into their quest should not, in any conception, work. And yet it does.
The star of the book is an 11-year-old girl named Kid, who has moved from Toronto to Manhattan for a few months with her parents, Bobby and Lisa, to dog-sit Bobby’s cousin’s dog, Cat. Yes, a kid named Kid in a book about a goat and a dog named Cat (short for Catherine the Great). This kind of wordplay runs throughout the novel, yet somehow manages not to become tiresome – a testament to Fleming’s skill and ability to perfectly gauge how much wackiness readers might bear.
Despite her gregarious parents (Bobby is a math teacher on leave to work on his play and Lisa’s Fringe show is about to premiere off-Broadway), Kid is painfully shy. She meets Will, a boy her age who lives in the building with his grandmother, and it takes a while for her to get over her initial reluctance to converse. But Will is easy to like, with a funny way of transposing the initial sounds of words (“How do you do?” becomes “Dow you do who?”) and fascination with Egyptology.
Fleming builds the characters of the children carefully, giving them energy and exuberance, but balancing those traits with realistic sensitivities and fears. While Kid is shy, Will, whose parents both died on 9/11, suffers from a form of agoraphobia that makes him feel nauseous and prone to fainting when he’s near uncovered windows. Over the course of the story, the children gently push each other out of their self-imposed comfort zones, while respecting each other’s emotions.
The youngsters shine, but Fleming doesn’t shuffle the adult characters off to the sidelines. Bobby is Kid’s primary caregiver in New York, and while their relationship accounts for the bulk of his function in the novel, Fleming gives him enough detail and personality to stand on his own. Likewise, Lisa’s slightly frantic goofiness, perfectly captured in her staccato exclamations when the family first arrives in Manhattan (“We’re in New York! Where we’re going to live! For a very short time!”) plays well against Bobby’s more subdued nature.
The building’s other residents all are fun, with idiosyncrasies and backstories that enhance the narrative rather than bogging it down. Importantly, they all also have something to overcome.
All of the fear and tragedy (including a sensitively adept explanation of 9/11 aimed at a generation too young to remember the events themselves) could add up to heaviness, but Fleming handles the climax and resolution of the story with such perfect pacing and humour that only after the fact does the reader realize each character – including the goat – has achieved something tremendously important.
If The Goat is what Fleming has to offer as a children’s author, let’s all hope she has more zany stories to share with young readers.