The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts
Algonquin, 2017 313 pages
Our hero, Oliver Cromwell Pitts, awakens to a terrible storm which has flooded his house in 1724 coastal England. His thoughts immediately turn to his beloved sister before he remembers that she has moved to London. Next he worries about the well-being of his distant and drunken father, who has never recovered from the death of his beloved wife who died giving birth to Oliver. Oliver goes in search of Father, only to find that he has quickly left town for London and his many enemies are gunning for his arrest. A water-soaked note offers some clues, but details are missing. A ship damaged from the storm has already been looted, yet Oliver still boards her, finding some money to keep him in food. He takes the coins, knowing that its wrong, but desperate times call for desperate measures. Meanwhile, Oliver finds himself thrown into a local orphanage at the mercy of a cruel manager. After a daring escape he flees town, only to find himself trapped and robbed by a highwayman. This encounter leads him to a crime syndicate, which recruits him to act as a decoy to lure unsuspecting victims. Once in London Oliver meets the head of the operation, who puts him immediately to work. A chance encounter reunites Oliver with those he loves the best and when he finds himself on trial for the many crimes he was forced to commit at least he is among friends. The ending finds Oliver onto a new adventure and in turn to a sequel.
Avi is truly a master at spinning a yarn. This new edition to his collection of over seventy books for young people proves that he is still at the top of his game. At his best when writing historical fiction, Avi fully delves into the culture and language of eighteenth-century England. This is a time period rarely explored in children's fiction. The next volume will focus on the life of an indentured servant in the early days of our own country, which is also a fresh topic young readers know little about. Avi has clearly done his research, yet the history is artfully camouflaged within a fast-moving plot, mystery, and surprise twists. We aren't sure when reading this story if the father is a good or evil character. Avi offers no easy answers to this question by book's end, yet shows motivation for Father's shortcomings and gives him an opportunity to somewhat redeem himself. Oliver is a brave and courageous character who lives by his wits and spunk, yet he is not perfect, makes some bad choices, but proves to have a good heart underneath it all. The beloved sister is also realistically flawed, showing that the world is not as black and white as literature for children tends to lead us to believe. The chapters are short with interesting headings and the action never flags, making this an excellent choice for reluctant readers, especially boys, although they may initially have a hard time getting use to the period language. A well-written book by a well-respected veteran in the children's book world.