Nicholas Tucker discusses Rodman Philbrick’s novels of courage and bravery where strength of mind wins through.
If his pre-adolescent male heroes are anything to go by, the American children’s author Rodman Philbrick should look small, weather-beaten and as apprehensive as befits anyone about to face a major, possibly life-threatening physical challenge. But Rodman (‘Call me Rod’) is in fact tall, genial and aged 54. The day before we met he was interviewed by Dustin, the aggressive turkey puppet on Irish television, and later in the afternoon was due to appear on the BBC’s kids show Xchange, sitting in a replica fishing boat demonstrating how to reel in a giant-size tuna.
This tuna will actually be a copy of Rod’s novel Lobster Boy , which describes a similar incident in the life of Skiff Beaman, a typical Philbrick hero. Aged 12, with a dead mother and drunken father, Skiff is desperate to save what’s left of his family fishing business. A thousand-pound tuna at 16 dollars a pound would be enough to restore his father’s boat and possibly his shattered self-respect as well. Urged on to ‘Never give up’ by the remembered voice of his dead mother, Skiff finally performs the near impossible and saves the day.
How autobiographical is this? ‘Well, I have always loved fishing,
and grew up on the coast of New Hampshire, becoming a longshoreman, carpenter and boat builder before making it in writing. And yes, my father was a dive-bombing pilot in the navy, and like many others in his group developed a serious drink problem. But I wasn’t small, I was always huge! One time when I was 14 and my dad went out on an all-night drinking binge, I waited up for him and then punched him to the ground when he returned next morning. I couldn’t bear the harm he was doing to his family. But we became close again when he finally defeated his alcoholism.’
An unquenchable spirit
How did he get into writing for children? ‘I have for some time made a living as a writer of thrillers and science fiction. But about 15 years ago I got to know a boy living nearby who had a rare spinal condition that meant he could never be more than three foot tall. But he also had a brilliant mind and an unconquerable spirit. And it was he who inspired me to write my first children’s book, Freak the Mighty .’
Subsequently translated into many languages and made into a film starring Sharon Stone, this novel had to wait 11 years before it was published in Britain to rave reviews. Told in the first person as in all Rod’s children’s novels, it is the story of lonely, unpopular and aggressive teenager Max Kane, who lives unhappily with his bemused grandparents. His mother is dead, murdered by his father ‘Killer Kane’, now in jail. But Max is rescued from despair by his new neighbour Kevin, known to his peers as Freak. Preternaturally intelligent, Kevin suffers from a terminal bone disease which keeps him tiny but this does nothing to quench his spirit.
Riding around on Max’s broad shoulders, Kevin acts as brain and Max as brawn as they get into various near-run scrapes with local bullies and crooks. But when Max’s father breaks out of prison and kidnaps his son, even Kevin is hard pressed to devise a rescue. He does, of course, since Rod has no interest in writing novels that leave young audiences with less hope than before. Kevin – like the boy upon whom he is based – still dies young. But Max is now a changed character, with a determination to put an account of his friendship on paper. This novel is written as if by him, faulty syntax, streetwise slang and all.
Rod’s latest novel Fire Pony is written with a similar strong narrative thrust. Once again eschewing any sexual interest, the plot concentrates on another feat of courage and bravery, this time involving a child’s desperate attempt to rescue horses caught in a fire. With its emphasis upon a young character’s strength of mind and body, this story like the others returns readers to a world view closer to Huckleberry Finn than to the adolescent novels of Judy Blume. Rod is happy about this. ‘Kids these days are surrounded by sexual imagery. I want to give them novels that tell them about something else in language that’s similar to how they talk themselves. I show them young characters up against adversity who are easy for them to identify with and then provide a way out for them by the end.’ At a time when the search for books genuinely popular with young boy readers is as urgent as ever, Rod has already proved himself a winner. We are lucky to have him.
Nicholas Tucker is honorary senior lecturer in Cultural and Community Studies at Sussex University.
Freak the Mighty , 0 7460 6253 2, Lobster Boy , 0 7460 6509 4, and Fire Pony , 0 7460 6508 6, are published in paperback by Usborne at £4.99 each.