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Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Unforgotten Coat, written by Frank Cottrell Boyce. Candlewick, Random House. 2011. $18.00 ages 9 and up

"Obviously I knew they'd only asked me to swap clothes to confuse their demon. Did I care about being used as demon bait? No, because by then I didn't believe in demons. Plus, wearing that fur coat made me one of a pair with Chingis, once of a pair of swaggering nomads with eagle-calming skills and strings of horses somewhere in the desert."

I am very keen on Frank Cottrell Boyce's writing. I was lucky to read Millions in its year of publication and I have followed his work since then. He has never disappointed me with his thoughtful and inspiring stories.

This new book has some surprises, and it certainly left me thinking about all that had happened when I turned from the last page. In the beginning, it is a school story. Two brothers from Mongolia arrive suddenly, and surrounded in mystery. They just appear, they refuse to be separated and they are wearing fur-lined coats and fur hats. The older one is Chingis, and the younger is Nergui.

Try to imagine yourself sitting in that classroom when they just drop in. They don't remove their coats or hats. Chingis refuses to allow Nergui to be taken to another, more appropriate classroom and they come from MONGOLIA!  Julie cannot contain her delight in their arrival. She is soon selected by the boys as their 'Good Guide' and they become fast friends. She is intrigued by them, but can discover little beyond what they are willing to share. They will not take her home with them, or tell her where they live.

Chingis is quite happy to share photographs that he has taken of his homeland. His classmates begin to learn more about his home country. It is only Julie's persistence that leads her to the truth about the boys, their home and family, and the problems they face. By the time she has discovered those truths, it is too late.

The tale is told quickly and by Julie, now grown and visiting her old school before they tear it down. When she sees Chingis' coat in the lost property box, she thinks back on her memories that remain clear and strong, even after all this time. There was not much to capture the imagination of those who lived in Bootle when the boys arrived. Two exotic visitors from a far-off, little known land led to much discovery...about Mongolia and about the school students themselves.

I love the design...a notebook with lined pages and photographs strewn throughout the story. The photos add interest to the almost magical qualities of the tale, which encourages discussion and flights of imagination. It is humorous, while also poignant. It is powerful and complex. It will leave some readers wondering and others lost in wonder at the delight it brings.

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