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Very Rich

by Polly Horvath

Rupert Brown, the protagonist of Very Rich, is a Tiny Tim–like character who has a Scrooge-like experience. In this inversion of A Christmas Carol, the poor child is the one who receives three surprise visitors. They open his eyes to the past, present, and future – and give him a taste of how the other half lives.

National Book Award and Newbery Honor winner Polly Horvath begins her latest novel in the run-up to Christmas. But to 10-year-old Rupert, Dec. 25 is just another day. He walks to school as usual, then heads home again when he finds the door is locked. Overcome by hunger and cold, he faints in front of a gated mansion – before being invited inside for a holiday celebration. There Rupert is surrounded by the large Rivers family, as well as butlers, cooks, and a live-in librarian.

Rupert is introduced to no end of new foods and to the family’s tradition of playing games for magnificent prizes. While Rupert covets only one item – a pair of winter boots – he ends up winning all the loot in a poker game, then losing it in a final trivia test. He goes home empty-handed.

Horvath sets the novel in 1996 Steelville, Ohio. But the whole book has a Victorian English vibe, from the Rivers’ parlour games to Rupert’s Dickensian poverty: he eats thin gruel and scavenged food, wears threadbare clothes, and sleeps on the floor underneath his siblings’ bed. While the story is lightly peppered with mentions of 20th-century staples – from cars to televisions – there remains an old-timey tone. When Horvath introduces an unprogrammable time machine (the destination is always a surprise), it becomes clear that she’s playing with time itself. And it’s a slippery, unsympathetic character: “Time gave you everything and took everything away again.”

After that memorable Christmas, Rupert returns to his normal, depressing life. But just when his situation seems unbearable, members of the Rivers family begin to show up individually and take him on adventures. While none of these rich and selfish folks are truly interested in his plight (otherwise, they certainly would spend more time feeding and properly clothing him), they do appreciate his wonder, naïveté, and fresh perspective – whether he’s helping Mrs. Rivers hijack the menu of a fine-dining establishment, being kidnapped by jewel thieves with Aunt Hazelnut, or travelling back in time to 1970s Coney Island with Uncle Henry.

Horvath is having a ball with this story. It’s fast-paced and filled with witty asides, creative scenarios, and a ridiculously entertaining cast. She pulls from Dickens, but Rupert’s parents have qualities akin to Roald Dahl’s despicable adult characters, and Uncle Henry’s time machine is a whirring cardboard box reminiscent of Dorothy’s flying house and the hot-air balloon in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Plus, there is a gravity-defying restaurant scene similar to the laughing-gas chapter in Mary Poppins. It wouldn’t be surprising if, like Wizard of Oz and Mary Poppins, Very Rich became a kidlit favourite, complete with a magical Technicolor big-screen adaptation.

As with its many inspirations, Very Rich is alternately delightful and dark and infused with subtle morals and messages. Horvath drops in social-class commentary, skewering the Rivers family for their obliviousness to human suffering and showcasing Rupert’s common sense and solid character, a product of his difficult life.

Rupert ultimately comes to understand that just the act of seeing the Rivers’ excess and briefly entering their reality has expanded his horizons and helped him learn to make the most of his own meagre circumstances: “Your life, no matter who you were, no matter where you were, was a unique and glorious thing. Some lives contained more money but all lives contained equal wonder.” Or as Tiny Tim would say, “God bless us, every one.”