The Fire-Eaters

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Bobby Burns knows he's a lucky lad. Growing up in sleepy Keely Bay, Bobby is exposed to all manner of wondrous things: stars reflecting off the icy sea, a friend that can heal injured fawns with her dreams, a man who can eat fire. But darkness seems to be approaching Bobby's life from all sides. Bobby's new school is a cold, cruel place. His father is suffering from a mysterious illness that threatens to tear his family apart. And the USA and ...
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Bobby Burns knows he's a lucky lad. Growing up in sleepy Keely Bay, Bobby is exposed to all manner of wondrous things: stars reflecting off the icy sea, a friend that can heal injured fawns with her dreams, a man who can eat fire. But darkness seems to be approaching Bobby's life from all sides. Bobby's new school is a cold, cruel place. His father is suffering from a mysterious illness that threatens to tear his family apart. And the USA and USSR are testing nuclear missiles and creeping closer and closer to a world-engulfing war.

Together with his wonder-working friend, Ailsa Spink, and the fire-eating illusionist McNulty, Bobby will learn to believe in miracles that will save the people and place he loves.

In 1962 England, despite observing his father's illness and the suffering of the fire-eating Mr. McNulty, as well as enduring abuse at school and the stress of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Bobby Burns and his family and friends still find reasons to rejoice in their lives and to have hope for the future.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
"Bobby's reflections, enhanced by powerful images of nature, convey the young protagonist's uncertainties and a sense of the world itself being on the cusp of change, in the fall of 1962," according to PW. Ages 8-up. (Nov.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Children's Literature
It is 1962. There are missiles in Cuba pointing at the U.S., and in Russia pointed who knows where. For the people living in Keely Bay—a hard scrabble seaside village in northern England—the horrors of World War II are still fresh enough that World War III does not seem like a stretch. It is during the missile crisis that Bobby first sees the fire eater, a man who has found ways to endure great physical pain. Bobby is dealing with many changes in his life, including beginning a private school with a sadistic teacher, the mysterious illness of his father, and his changing relationships with local friends Ailsa and Joseph. The author weaves together many events and characters into a story where everything seems to fit. One of the things that I most admire about his books is the quiet dignity of his characters. Once again he reminds us that miracles do happen, but not without some help and faith. 2004, Delacorte, Ages 10 to 14.
—Debra Nelson
Bobby Burns enjoys his life. He has a friend named Ailsa Spink who can heal injured animals in her dreams. He rough and tumbles with his pal Joseph. His parents love him and see that Bobby has a grand time on summer vacation. The looming school year appears to be one of promise in a new school with new opportunities to prove himself. Then one fateful day, Bobby encounters the fire-eating McNulty. Suddenly there is trouble in Bobby's heretofore tranquil world. The Cubans allow the Soviet Union to place missiles directed at the United States in their country, and a world war seems too real a possibility. Bobby's new schoolmates are cruel; he is made to feel as if he were an outsider. Perhaps the appearance of the mysterious fire-eater and illusionist is a portent of what is to come in Bobby's world. Almond is in fine form in this coming-of-age novel that examines the nature of acceptance and rejection. McNulty, Ailsa, Joseph, and Bobby encounter hostility, prejudice, and cruelty from people who are strangers. Their interactions strangely mirror the events in the world around them as well. Almond creates a cast of characters who care deeply about each other and the fate of the world in which they live. Fans of the fire-illusionist Dustfinger from Cornelia Funke's Inkheart (Chicken House/Scholastic, 2003/VOYA December 2003) might speculate about the connection these two creatures (and stories) share. VOYA CODES: 5Q 4P M J (Hard to imagine it being any better written; Broad general YA appeal; Middle School, defined as grades 6 to 8; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9). 2004, Delacorte, 176p., Ages 11 to 15.
—Teri S. Lesesne
School Library Journal
Gr 7 Up-It's 1962, and 12-year-old Bobby and his mom leave their small, seaside village in the north of England for a day trip to Newcastle. There, Bobby is staggered by his encounter with Mr. McNulty. This odd little man is his own wandering sideshow; he pierces his cheeks with a dagger, escapes from shackles, and breathes fire in exchange for coins. At home, Dad recognizes McNulty as a fellow veteran of World War II, who came home from Burma with his brain boiled by "too much war, too much heat, too many magic men." Meanwhile, Bobby enrolls at the prestigious Sacred Heart school with his new, upper-crust neighbor, Daniel. Both quickly suffer at the hands of Mr. Todd, a masochistic teacher. As Daniel plots revenge, Bobby worries that his father's increasingly frail health might prove fatal. Changing relationships with friends Ailsa and Joseph also bear heavily on Bobby, but overhanging everything is the Cuban missile crisis. During the climactic night as the disparate characters, including McNulty, gather at a bonfire on the beach, Bobby's fear that the flash of nuclear annihilation is as likely as dawn fulfills Almond's firm evocation of this particular time and place. The protagonist's ferocious love for his family, community, and life itself amply reward readers able to appreciate the uncompromising British idiom. The author's trademark themes-courage in resisting evil; the importance of love among friends and family, especially in the face of crisis; suffering and death amidst peace and beauty; and the fragility of life-are here in full, and resonate long after the last page is turned.-Joel Shoemaker, Southeast Junior High School, Iowa City, IA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
It's 1962, a year observed through the eyes of Bobby, a 12-year-old who lives in a shabby seaside village. Like the choicest of Almond, this is moody and layered. Woven throughout are dark, dramatic threads that begin to coalesce: father's mysterious illness, retribution against a sadistic private-school teacher, a traveling fire-eater (the shell of a WWII veteran) who shelters nearby, the Cuban missile crisis and the encroaching threat of nuclear war. Juxtaposed against somber images of historical, physical, and institutional pain and fear are the warmth, dependability, and light of home, family, loyal friendships, the play of a lighthouse light as it moves across the window, and a belief in miracles. There is a heart-stirring sense that this is a time and space between-between war and nuclear holocaust, between childhood and adolescence, between traditional and modern ways, between life and death. And finally, what a difference it makes when a whole community holds its collective breath, momentarily expecting hell-a hell that never comes. Breathtakingly and memorably up to Almond's best. (Fiction. 10-14)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780606345644
  • Publisher: Demco Media
  • Publication date: 11/28/2005
  • Format: Library Binding
  • Pages: 218
  • Age range: 9 - 12 Years
  • Product dimensions: 5.26 (w) x 7.80 (h) x 0.74 (d)

Meet the Author

David Almond grew up in a large family in northeastern England and says, “The place and the people have given me many of my stories.” He worked as a postman, a brush salesman, an editor, and a teacher, but began to write seriously after he finished college. His first novel for children, Skellig, was a Michael L. Printz Honor Book and an ALA Notable Book and appeared on many best book of the year lists. His second novel, Kit’s Wilderness, won the Michael L. Printz Award for excellence in literature for young adults. David Almond lives in Newcastle, England, with his partner and their daughter.

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Read an Excerpt


It all starts on the day I met McNulty. I was with my mam. We left Dad at home beside the sea. We took the bus to Newcastle. We got out below the statue of the angel, then headed down toward the market by the river. She was all in red. She kept singing "The Keel Row" and swinging my arm to the rhythm of the song. A crowd had gathered beyond the market stalls but we couldn't see what held so many people there. She led me closer. She stood on tiptoes. There were bodies all around me, blocking out the light. Seagulls were squealing. It had been raining. There were puddles in the joints between the cobblestones. I kicked water across my shiny new black shoes. The splashes turned to dark stains on my jeans. The water splashed on her ankles as well but she didn't seem to feel it. I tugged her hand and wanted to move away, but she didn't seem to feel it.

His voice was muffled by the bodies, and at first it seemed so distant. "Pay!" he yelled. "You'll not see nowt till you pay!" I tugged her hand again. "Are you not listening?" he yelled. I raised my eyes and tried to see. And she put her hands beneath my arms and lifted me and I teetered on my toes and there he was, at the center of us all. I looked into his eyes. He looked back into mine. And it was as if my heart stopped beating and the world stopped turning. That was when it started. That moment, that Sunday, late summer, 1962.

He was a small, wild-eyed, bare-chested man. His skin was covered in scars and bruises. There were rough and faded tattoos of beasts and women and dragons. He had a little canvas sack on a long stick. He kept shoving it at the crowd.

"Pay!" he yelled and snarled. "You'll not get nowt till you pay."

Some of the crowd turned away and pushed past us as we moved forward. They shook their heads and rolled their eyes. He was pathetic, they said. He was a fake. One of them leaned close to Mam. "Take the lad away," he said. "Some of the tricks is just disgusting. Not for bairns to see. It shouldn't be allowed."

McNulty's hair was black. He had pointed gold teeth at the front of his mouth and he wore tiny golden earrings. There were deep creases in his cheeks. The bridge was high behind him. The sun shone through its arch. Steam and scents from the hot dog stalls and popcorn makers drifted across us. Mam held me against her.

"Reach into my pocket," she said. "Find him a coin."

I reached down and took out some silver. When I looked up again his little sack was right before my eyes.

"Into the sack with it, bonny lad," he said.

I dropped the coin in. He held my eye with his. He grinned.

"Good lad," he snarled.

He took the sack away.

"Pay," he yelled, shoving the sack at other faces. "Get your money out and pay!"

She pushed my shoulders, helping me forward. I squirmed through, right to the front of the crowd.

"Bonny lad!" he muttered when he saw me there. He looked through the crowd. "Bonny lady."

The stick and the sack were on the ground. He flexed his muscles. A cart wheel lay on the cobbles beside him. He stood it on end, in front of him. It had heavy wooden spokes, a thick steel rim. It was as high as his chest.

"Could McNulty lift this?" he hissed.

He took it in his hands, spread his legs, bent his knees and lifted it to his thighs and let it rest there.

"Could he?" he said through gritted teeth. "Could he?"

There were tears of strain in his eyes.

He groaned, lifted again, a sudden jerk that took the cart wheel high. We gasped. We backed away. He leaned his head back and rested the wheel on his brow so that it stood above him, with the sun and the bridge caught in its ring. He shuffled on the cobbles, balancing himself with his elbows wide and his hands gripping the rim of steel. He grunted and hissed. Then he lifted the cart wheel free and let it fall with a crash and the whole earth seemed to shake.

He glared at us. He blinked, wiped his tears away.

"See? See what a man can do?"

I reached behind me but Mam's hand wasn't there. I looked back through the crowd and saw her and she smiled and held up her hand, telling me to stay there.

"What next?" said McNulty. "The fire or the chains or the..."

He fell silent as his eye met mine again. He leaned close.

"Help me, bonny," he whispered.

He reached for my hand. I turned to Mam. She waved again and smiled, as if to tell me everything was fine, she was still there, there was nothing to fear. He cupped my shoulder and drew me to him. Dozens of eyes watched.

"This is my assistant," he said. "His name is..."

I couldn't speak. He leaned close. He cupped his hand across his mouth, whispered into my ear.

"His name is..."

"R-Robert," I stammered.

"R-Robert!" he announced.

He crouched in front of me. His skin glistened. I caught the smoky sweaty scent of him. I caught the sour smell of the river flowing darkly nearby. I looked into the black center of his eyes.

"There is a box here, bonny," he told me.

He slid a casket to my feet.

"Open it," he said.

I did nothing.

"Open it, Bobby," he whispered.

With trembling fingers, I opened it. Inside were needles and pins and fishhooks and skewers and knives and scissors, some of them all rusted, some of them all bright.

"Take out something awful," he said. "Take out the thing that you think should make the most pain."

I stared into his eyes, so deep and dark.

"Do it, Bobby," he said.

I took out a silver skewer, as long as my forearm. It had a Saracen's head as a handle. The point was needle-sharp.

He shuddered.

"Well chosen, Bobby."

He stood up. He held the skewer between his index fingers for the crowd to see.

"Who would dare?" he said. "Bobby!"

I looked up at him.

"Bobby, pass the sack to them. Tell them to put their coins in it. Tell them they'll not see nowt until they pay."

I just wanted to escape, but the bodies were packed before me. The faces were all smiles. Mam had her hand across her mouth. She widened her eyes, she raised her shoulders, she tried to go on smiling.

"Do it, Bobby," he said. "Do the buggers think a man like me can live on fresh air? Pay! Tell them! Get your money out and pay!"

I weakly pushed the sack into the crowd. McNulty barked his demands. Mam leaned far toward me, dropped three coins in. I wanted to reach out to her, grab her hand, get her to pull me away. Then McNulty snapped:

"Enough, Bobby. They're tightfisted crooks and they won't give us what we need. But to hell with them. Let's give them something to infect their waking and fire their dreams."

I turned to him. He touched my cheek. He drew me to his side. He spoke to me as if no one else existed, as if there were just the two of us there beside the river on that brightening late-summer day.

"Help me, son," he said.

He stood stock-still. He lowered his head, closed his eyes. He breathed deeply. He muttered incomprehensible words. He raised his head, opened his eyes. He held the point of the skewer against his cheek. He looked blankly at the crowd.

"Bobby," he said. "Touch me if I cry out. Catch me if I fall."

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 8, 2012


    It was a good book i say read it

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 1, 2011


    Never read it. Never will.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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