At 12 years old John has to find a job and leave his school, where he would love to spend more time, as he is the breadwinner of the family since his father died. The Forth Bridge is being built down the road so despite his fear of heights and as a result of a bold approach to the Mr. Arrol, the man in charge of the construction, gains a job as a rivet boy. Alongside his story working at extreme heights, heating the rivet, tossing it to the next member of the four-man gang, is his love of books and his visits to the Carnegie Library in Dunfermline. It is not plain sailing but aided by Cora who rescues him from the fall into the river, and by saving the Prince of Wales from assassination, John finds his work ‘home’ at last.
Many of the characters in this story were real figures in the building of the majestic bridge, including Mr. Arroll, and of course Andrew Carnegie, and feature in the photographs at the end of the book. John is a plucky hero and although the saving of the Prince of Wales at the end of the story stretches things a little too far, it all makes for a good and exciting story. It also shows a light on the working practices of the time, the lack of safety measures for example, no hard hats here. The extreme poverty without the net of the welfare state, but also the kindness of strangers including, (as a librarian I am glad to say), Mr. Peebles in the Carnegie Library! There are also some pointers to the position of women at the time through the character of Cora who desperately wants to be an engineer. There are the bullies who try to get rid of John through sheer cruelty, and the burns John suffers on his face and hands through the work itself make the reader wince, so the reality of life as a rivet boy comes clearly through.