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Sunday, July 8, 2012

A Troublesome Boy, written by Paul Vasey. Groundwood, 2012. $9.95 ages 14 and up

"Study hall was torture. Two hours of read a few pages, look at the clock, read a few more pages, look at the clock. There wasn't a sound in the room except for the swishing of Sullivan's robes as he snuck up and down the aisles. No one wanted to give him an excuse to send them to The Dungeon."

Teddy doesn't like his mother's new boyfriend, and he makes no attempts to try and change that. As a result, he is sent to a boys' boarding school run by Catholic priests. His first impression is not a good one, and it doesn't take long for him to start plotting his way out.

Early in his tenure there, he is sent to The Dungeon, for insubordination. It is dark, he is alone and he must stay there until one of the Fathers decides to release him, ro remembers where he is. There are a number of such rooms to punish rule breakers and 'troublesome' boys. Whe he meets Cooper, he makes a change in his plans. He doesn't want to leave him there. Maybe they will leave together.

As the days and months pass, Teddy is privy to some of the abuse and disturbing events of his new world. He knows that some boys are in The Dungeons for so long that they can do nothing but relieve themselves while locked in. Then, they must clean up after themselves as part of their punishment. He notes that some boys are mistreated for being impertinent and not following the rules set out by the Fathers. Father Prince is the most frightening. He ogles the boys while they are in the showers each evening comes into their dormitory at night when everyone is supposedly asleep and takes Copper away with him.

When this starts happening, Teddy notices that Cooper's personality changes dramatically. He is often alone by his own choice and constantly makes notes in the margins of his favorite book of Wordsworth poetry. That book leads first to hope, and then dashed dreams for Teddy when it is confiscated by the headmaster.

While the darkness of the boarding school is at the forefront, there is also occasional humor and a lovely man who provides friendship and an 'out' for both boys on weekends, when they are allowed some freedom. Rozey takes them fishing, plays games with them and makes them Christmas dinner just as he and his old Dad once made. They are rare respites from the terror of the everyday for both boys, but especially for Cooper.

His story is father, an addict for a mother, foster care and finally St. Iggy's to try to break him. He is a brilliant, and flawed character, loved by Teddy and Rozey. Very little makes his days any better.

Unforgettable characters, fierce loyalty, tense action, despicable older men preying on young boys physically and emotionally...yet, I could not stop reading. Paul Vasey writes his first novel with a chilling first person narrative, often laced with humor to help readers through the darkness, and with a sense of hopefulness as Teddy's story comes to an end. Happily, he is expelled for knowing too much. It does nothing for the boys left behind, except to know that two of the worst abusers are no longer at St. Ignatius. This is a brave and powerful novel.

It is chilling that the blurb on the back describes Paul Vasey as an honored  print, radio and TV journalist with five adult novels to his credit, and as 'a boarding school survivor'. We can only hope that many of the events of his first novel for young adults are not based on personal experience.

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