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The Several Lives of Orphan Jack

by Sarah Ellis, Bruno St-Aubin, illus.

Sarah Ellis, the celebrated Vancouver author with X-ray insight into her child protagonists’ inner lives, turns her talents to something completely different: an ebullient bildungsroman that skips along with the sparkling wordplay of a junior Dickens and the surface simplicity of a Br’er Rabbit folk tale.

Orphan Jack begins his saga as a 12-year- old orphanage scullery boy so bereft of identity that he’s ignominiously known as “Otherjack” – the second Jack to be left at the door of the Opportunities School for Orphans and Foundlings.

Like the hero of any good fairy tale, however, Jack has three gifts. First, he’s “the king of staying out of trouble.” In all his years at the orphanage, he was never flogged. He “skipped over trouble, danced around trouble, slid under trouble, melted away from trouble, talked his way out of trouble and slipped between two close troubles like a cat through a picket fence.”

Second, he has a dictionary, albeit one fatefully missing the A and B sections, which has richly furnished his imaginative life with a secret treasure-trove of words. (Throughout the book, Jack relies on this inner linguistic wealth to brighten the gloom, guide his actions, and frame his changing identities through “several lives.”)

And third, he’s an incurable optimist, greeting life with a healthy adolescent’s rush of enthusiasm and energy.

Nevertheless, Otherjack’s first foray into the outside world is dismaying. His second “life” – as an ink-stained apprentice to a bookkeeper – ends after a single day of arithmetical torture, when he impulsively decides, bundling up his few possessions, to run away. “‘Boldness and bundles,’ he said to himself. ‘That’s the life of an ex-bookkeeper.’”

Every chapter ends with a similarly jaunty or rueful effort at alliterative self-definition, giving the book the forward energy and formulaic style of a secular Pilgrim’s Progress.

These comparisons are not idle. Throughout Ellis’s high-spirited tale are tiny echoes of classic texts. The names of the orphanage teachers – Messrs. Bane, Hector, and Wormwood – are straight out of Dickens. Jack’s “word-hoard” rings a Beowulfian bell. And at the moment when Otherjack escapes the orphanage and becomes Jack, he mimics Odysseus, eluding his pursuers by crawling along in the midst of a flock of sheep.

Ellis bestows these hints and reverberations with a light hand. They never weigh down her story, but serve to tether the airy tale firmly to the solid ground of literary tradition.

Just when the reader might think Jack’s adventures have led to a happy ending, and when he seems about to settle down in the bosom of a welcoming family at a flour mill – roast pork, cider, a snug bed by the fire and twittering birds to greet his waking – a different cry tugs Jack back to the road. It’s the shriek of a seagull, “rude and free and full of opinions.” That seven-word summons to the life of adventure, freedom, and independence is an apt example of Ellis’s style. Polished to a shine, compact with meaning and almost athletic in its vigour, the language seems bound to sweep the young reader along with its energy.

If anything is wanting, it’s a smidgeon of interiority, a trace of shadow. As likeable as this young Jack may be, he’s the quintessential Everyboy: Jack be Nimble, Jack the Giant Killer, Jack of All Trades. Ellis’s heroines in her naturalistic novels, and her male protagonists in the startlingly powerful stories in Back of Beyond, all have several more dimensions than our indomitable Jack.

I remember how astonishing Ellis’s first novel, The Baby Project, published in 1986, was in its confidence, humour, and pitch-perfect ear for family banter and argument. I also remember how the book, three-quarters of the way through, snuck up and seized me by the throat. I was crying before I knew it, tears spilling mortifyingly onto the page.

Pick-Up-Sticks was a particularly subtle evocation of the strains between a mother and teenage daughter, for which Ellis deservedly scooped up the Governor General’s Award. In Back of Beyond, a collection of stories that play with the uncanny, Ellis proved that she can handle deeper and more disturbing currents in human experience with equal authority. That’s why my reading of Orphan Jack was tinged with just an edge of disappointment. I’m still anticipating the young adult novel by this major talent that will shake us with new emotional depths and powerful writing.

Orphan Jack is a lark, a tall tale, a word-rich enticement (especially to young boys) to read for the ride, and it would be wrong to fault it for not being the novel I’m waiting for. Welcome it as a wonderful classroom read-aloud. Orphan Jack has a kinship to Sid Fleischman’s works in its exuberant love of language and action-packed appeal. The book’s design – its compact size and shape, brief chapters, and eight black-and-white drawings by Bruno St-Aubin – makes it especially accessible to middle readers. Amidst the imitative Harry Potter wannabes flooding the market,The Several Lives of Orphan Jack is a standout. It fits no established category except that of must-read.