Five Boys: A Novel

Five Boys: A Novel

4.0 2
by Mick Jackson

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When Bobby is evacuated from London to a remote Devonshire village, a strange new chapter of his life begins. Empty of its menfolk, the village is given over to the “stay behinds”: the women, the old and young, and five terrifying boys who accuse Bobby of being a Nazi spy. Then, there is the enigmatic Bee King, a mysterious figure who exercises a


When Bobby is evacuated from London to a remote Devonshire village, a strange new chapter of his life begins. Empty of its menfolk, the village is given over to the “stay behinds”: the women, the old and young, and five terrifying boys who accuse Bobby of being a Nazi spy. Then, there is the enigmatic Bee King, a mysterious figure who exercises a powerful, hypnotic influence on the village, and especially the boys.

As the days wind down to the D-day invasion and the Allied soldiers crash the beaches along the French coast, the villagers will enact their own drama -- a tense interplay of events that will engulf them all and ulti- mately reveal the truth about the Bee King.

Brilliantly captivating and thoroughly researched, Five Boys is the tale of the war's impact on the home front, bringing to light a lost place and time with an expert touch.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this funny, touching and highly original novel, a close-knit gang of five boys forms a prism that refracts the idiosyncrasies of WWII English life in a small village in Devon. Ostensibly, the story is about Bobby, a newcomer evacuated from London and the Blitz, who is terrorized and then befriended by the gang. But the real protagonist is the town itself and its unusual denizens: Lillian Minter, the spinster who reluctantly takes Bobby in; the Captain, who spends his days fashioning models of ships wrecked off the Devon coast and, eventually, another newcomer, an apiarist known only as "the Bee King," who introduces the boys to "the harem in the hive." These eccentric characters, and many others, are decisively etched, though the eponymous quintet are strangely undeveloped; only one, Aldred Crouch, emerges from their collective presence. The narrative is episodic, more an integrated collection of seriocomic short stories than a novel with dramatic unity, but these vignettes are a testament to Jackson's writerly skill and imagination. Highly evocative of both time and place, the novel is about the bizarre ways the war affected those left at home and how it changed virtually everything about English life, particularly for the generation too young to serve. Jackson, whose previous book, The Underground Man, was shortlisted for the Booker, has a tender, observant eye and a quirky imagination, qualities that bring this work rare luminosity and insight. (June 4) Forecast: Sales could benefit from Jackson's familiarity to American audiences as a former member of the British bands the Screaming Adbabs and the Dinner Ladies. Booksellers can reference John Boorman's movie, Hope and Glory, for a similar evocation of time and place. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Bobby, an evacuee of blitz-plagued London, arrives in Devon, England, and meets the five boys of the title (all of whom were born within weeks of one another and make a formidable group). When the enigmatic Bee King arrives in the small village, the boys come under his influence and the novel veers into an unexpected if somewhat abrupt ending. Jackson so successfully brings the seriocomic story of the youngsters and the village to life that when the war enters the picture, readers may be somewhat surprised to remember when the action takes place. The narrative is a series of moments or scenes, almost short stories that have more in common with the kind of plot development used in films than standard prose fiction. Five Boys is like Hope and Glory, the World War II film about a London family during the Blitz, or even the TV series Northern Exposure. The writing is funny and sad, bittersweet and compassionate. Bobby's homesickness and "debilitating terror" are so evocative as to be almost painful to read. Jackson has a gift for conveying, in a few short paragraphs, whole realms of small but important truths about life and about what even sheltered daily life is like during a time of great struggle and violence. This humorous and beautifully written period piece may cast a deeper understanding of the world today.-Jane Halsall, McHenry Public Library District, IL Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Jackson (The Underground Man, 1997) offers a nostalgic, tone-perfect evocation of life in an English village during WWII. When the Blitz is on and a London boy named Bobby is evacuated (alone) to Devon, it's almost as though he's been sent to the farthest reaches of the earth. Put up in a house with the fidgety Miss Minter, who lives alone and scarcely knows what to do with him, he all but dies of homesickness-until he's sent to school and meets the five boys (so called because they band together, having been born in a single autumn). The meeting is bad, since Bobby gets pummeled, tricked, and tortured-he's even fed worms-but the tide turns when one of the five reveals his secret fascination with distant London, and the group of friends grows to six. But Miss Minter's house is on the land being evacuated for the use of the military in preparation for D-day: and Bobby disappears from the book, going with Miss Minter to an outlying farm. Even so, he's given us a fine start into the remainder of these loosely connected sketches, anecdotes, and tales, having introduced us handsomely to villagers including the reclusive Captain, maker of model ships; the hefty postmistress, Miss Pye, whom he secretly lusts for; the ne'er-do-well Howard Kent; the parents of the five boys; even the stoically arthritic Reverend Bentley. Things change subtly as Americans appear, preparing to invade Europe, and farms become haunted oases on artillery proving grounds. The war will end, but not the story: among other strange, notable, and ordinary things, a man called the Bee King will arrive and, pied-piperlike, enchant the five boys, even lure them away-or seem to-before bringing forth a revelation that may puzzlebut will also captivate. Garrison Keillor mixed with Sherwood Anderson, Our Town, and Under Milkwood: a blending destined to move and please all but the meanest of souls. Wonderful.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Lists and String

The children all stood to attention, like an army on parade. The teachers strolled up and down the lines, counting heads and trying to keep order. Occasionally stopped, to check their lists or make some calculation. Then went striding off again.

There had been a lot of list-making lately. Every grownup seemed to be scrawling notes on the backs of envelopes. Bobby's mother was a tireless list maker, but all her shopping lists and things-to-do lists paled into insignificance beside the one Bobby brought home from school the Friday before.

She read it out at the table that evening:

Besides clothes/coat for journey
1 vest I shirt with collar
1 pair pants
1 pullover or jersey
1 pair knickers handkerchiefs two pairs socks or stockings
night attire, comb, towel, soap, facecloth, toothbrush,
plimsolls, boots or shoes. (Blankets need not be taken.)

Then Bobby and his parents sat and ate in silence as if they'd just heard a reading from the Gospels or a speech by the King.

On Saturday morning Bobby watched his mother pack his suitcase. She must have checked every item against that list a dozen times. Then she closed the catches, strapped a belt around it and gave it to Bobby to heave downstairs, where it sat by the front door, brooding, for the rest of the weekend.

When he left on Monday morning his mother gave him a brown-paper package and as he stood in the playground Bobby couldn'thelp thinking that all the bags and suitcases were more important than the children -- that they were just there to lug the things around. A couple of boys next to Bobby were getting quite excited and had to be quieted down, but after twenty minutes' boredom, with its own volatility, began to seep through the lines until Mr. Morely finally peeped on his whistle and the teachers prepared to move them out.

The children were led off row by row, like knitting unraveling -- a great chain of children rattling through the gates, out onto the pavements and picking up speed as they went along. They marched past the park and up the high street, marched by the open market and the old Town Hall. Neighbors waved. Shopkeepers stood and watched from their doorways. And when Mr. Morely strode out into the road and raised his rolled-up brolly the traffic slowed to a halt, as if now that the children were finally moving, there was no easy way of stopping them.

Mr. Morely led them up and down the streets in one long conga, but eventually turned into the yard of a bus depot, where the children were shuffled into rows again. The ground was black and tacky underfoot from engine oil, and across the yard five coaches waited with their doors open, as if ready to race away. But by the time there had been another round of head counting and list checking, and instructions had been issued, regarding running and pushing and the making of noise, any pleasure to be had from boarding a coach was lost.

Bobby managed to get a seat by a window. Miss Peebles trotted up the steps and counted everyone's head again. Then the driver climbed aboard, sank into his seat and fired up the engine, which turned the stomach of every girl and boy.

It seemed to take all day to cross the city. Most of the children just stared out of the window. Some talked; some quarreled. One or two eventually fell asleep. But the boy next to Bobby seemed to fret right through the journey, and when they finally pulled up he burst into tears. Miss Peebles came down, to see what was the matter. Apparently he'd convinced himself he was going to be put on an airplane and flown halfway around the world, and it took Miss Peebles quite a while to convince him that they were actually parked outside a railway station and that nobody was going to be flying anywhere.

The children were led off into the station and lined up on one of the platforms, where they stood and watched the trains shunt in and out under the great wide roof. After twenty minutes some women in armbands came around, with trays of buns and mugs of tea. Then the children were led back onto the coaches and driven home again.

On Tuesday Bobby had a much better idea what the day ahead had in store and worked out that by keeping his eyes on the heels of the boy in front he could keep in step with him. The drive across the city was hot but uneventful, the bun on the station platform was much the same as the one before and when he got back home he couldn't tell whether his mother was genuinely surprised to see him or was in on the whole charade.

On Wednesday it occurred to Bobby that the rest of his school years might consist of nothing but endless rehearsals for evacuation -- year upon year of marching through the streets (which would be good practice for being, say, a postman) and sitting on coaches (which would be no use at all). But as they left the playground on that third day he spotted his mother and some other women on the other side of the road and as the children marched along behind Mr. Morely's brolly the women crept from lamppost to lamppost, as if they were spying on them, or had been warned not to get too close. Bobby tried to keep his eyes on the boy in front but couldn't help glancing over at his mother. She didn't wave -- as if it was just a coincidence that she and Bobby were marching along the same streets -- but when they reached the depot and were herded onto the coaches, all the mothers suddenly rushed across the yard...

Five Boys. Copyright © by Mick Jackson. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Mick Jackson was born in Great Harwood in Lancashire, England. His first novel, The Underground Man, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the Whitbread First Novel Award and won the Royal Society of Authors' First Novel Award. While researching Five Boys, he enrolled in beekeeping classes and to this day, keeps two hives at his home in Brighton, England.

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