Monday, 12 September 2011
Review: We Can Be Heroes - Catherine Bruton
Extent: 400 pages
Pub Date: 1st August 2011
My dad was killed in the 9/11 attacks in New York. But the stuff in this book isn't about that. It's about the summer my mum went away. The summer that me and Jed and Priti tried to catch a suicide bomber and prevent an honour killing. There's stuff about how we built a tree house and joined the bomb squad; how I found my dad and Jed lost his; and how we both lost our mums then found them again. So it's not really about 9/11 but, then again, none of those things would have happened if it hadn't been for that day. So I guess it's all back to front, sort of...
I read this in the build up to the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and it did everything to remind me how I should feel about those terrible events, how I need to fight intolerance with tolerance, hatred with friendship and prejudice with open mindedness. I know I’m sounding a bit preachy now but this is honestly how I felt after reading this book, it’s a real affirmation.
Some authors are just so adept at getting inside the head of a kid and talking through their mouths and Catherine Bruton has definitely earned that accolade, it’s almost as if she taped 11-13 year olds and transcribed their dialogue, it is that pitch perfect. Ben makes a really endearing character to walk through this story with and I love the way his imagination mostly takes place in the form of doodles and cartoon strips. I think my favourite character, however, has to be Priti with her verbal diarrhoea and lack of restraint in what she says. She’s a real say-as-you-find character that both Ben and his cousin Jed really need to work through their problems. Boys tend to bottle up their feelings but with Priti around this is just not allowed so she is really an undercover therapist for the other characters.
Perhaps the most effective aspect of the book is the way that on the surface there’s a real sense of pre-teen adventure but simmering below are a lot of pretty hardcore and relevant issues, most notably hostility towards Muslims. I really appreciate the sharp contrast between the explicit racism of the older characters (Ben’s uncle and grandfather) and the unabashed acceptance of the younger characters. Ben never comments on Priti’s background, he gets to know her and her family as he would any other person and accepts them as his friends without any judgement. His uncle and grandfather, however, immediately dig a racist trench to wage a war of prejudice before they have even made the effort to know their neighbours. The mad thing is, Ben is the one that of all of them should be prejudiced but is exactly the opposite. It’s awful to think that this goes on in Britain but you know it does and Catherine Bruton really smacks you round the face with it. Better to confront it in a book for teens than do the British thing and ignore it.
We Can Be Heroes is such an effective and enjoyable book written incredibly well in a style that completely avoids forcing an opinion on the reader. Catherine Bruton simply puts the situation out there for you to react to it in your own way, although she’ll make you squirm with shame along the way. She has so successfully captured the realities of these issues that it’s hard not to worry but makes me grateful that I was brought up to be like Ben. There are so many different reactions to racism in the book – violence, dismissal, encouragement – but I have to say I like Priti’s reaction the best: to outwit it. She definitely has the most mature attitude despite the fact that she’s the youngest character!