Saturday, January 12, 2008

Frank Cottrell Boyce

by Frank Cottrell Boyce
Recommended Age: 11+

“Now a major motion picture,” says the cover on the paperback, above an adorable picture of the actor who played Damian Cunningham in the film based on this book. Or rather, the film on which this book was

It’s like the old chicken-or-egg question. Which came first, the book or the movie? It seems that the book was still being written when the movie was being filmed. Yet the book is certainly more than just a novelized version of the screenplay. I suppose it doesn’t matter. The same author wrote both the book and the screenplay. I liked the book so much that I immediately went out and bought a video of the film, and I like that too. But for once, when I say that I liked the book better than the film, I can’t blame the screenwriter for changing it! Maybe it’s because Mr. Cottrell Boyce had a chance, with the book, to perfect what had begun as a screenplay. Or perhaps it’s just that Damian is a character who has to be imagined, and believed in...rather than seen.

The story is set in the last 17 days of the old, British sterling money, before it gets replaced by the Euro. Everyone has that long to spend, or exchange, their pounds and pence for Euros, before the old money becomes worthless. At just that time, a huge bag of money falls out of the sky – or maybe off a train – into the hands of a very special fourth-grader named Damian. A boy of whom the world is not worthy, as one might say.

Damian is the narrator in this story, and within the first few words of his narrative I fell in love with him. Don’t look at me like that, I don’t mean that kind of love. I mean that he made me giggle on nearly every page, and he filled my eyes with tears a few times, and he made me want to be his Dad, so I could protect him from the cruel world. His real Dad (the one in the book, I mean) has his job cut out for him. Damian aspires to sainthood, which means that he wants to do good. It also means that he knows everything about the saints, talks about them a lot (in situations that make you squirm), and even talks with them now and then. And when over 200,000 pounds sterling fall right on top of him, there’s a lot of good he can do – and a lot of trouble he can get into.

In the trouble department, Damian is helped by his older brother Anthony, whose mind is as fixed on material things as is Damian’s on the things above. To Anthony, beyond playing cash Jenga, a sackful of cash that has to be spent in two weeks means a lot of sugar, a lot of toys, a lot of favors from other kids at school, and possibly a bit of real estate speculation. Inflation runs rampant on the playground as ten-pound notes move about the student body.

Meanwhile, a real creep – maybe the one who stole the money in the first place – is on the boys’ trail, closing in every day. Tension rises as the cut-off date for the old pounds draws nearer, and so does the bad guy. And the boys wonder more and more who they can trust with their secret, and whether their dreams for the money have a chance of coming true.

The book is many things at once. It is a touching story about a family pulling itself back together after a tragic loss. It is a fantasy-adventure on multiple levels – first, the “what would you do with millions of money” fantasy; but also the bit about the saints and spirits who commune with young Damian. Could they be real? Or is his brother right when he says that Damian is a loony who should be locked up?

No, clearly he is not. Damian may not be going about sainthood the right way, but he is an unforgettable, good little boy, and his story will fill you with joy.

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