Nicholas Dane

Nicholas Dane

3.8 10
by Melvin Burgess

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When fourteen-year-old Nicholas Dane's mother dies, social services sends him to a home for boys where intimidation and violence keep order. After a number of fights and brutal punishments, Nick thinks that life can't possibly get any worse . . . until he realizes that the home's respected deputy head, who has been grooming him with sweets and solace, has something

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When fourteen-year-old Nicholas Dane's mother dies, social services sends him to a home for boys where intimidation and violence keep order. After a number of fights and brutal punishments, Nick thinks that life can't possibly get any worse . . . until he realizes that the home's respected deputy head, who has been grooming him with sweets and solace, has something more frightening in mind.
Acclaimed writer and truth-teller Melvin Burgess brings us, with Dickensian scope and compelling narrative drive, his most ambitious book yet.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Carnegie Medalist Burgess (Smack) delivers a brutal story of rape and abuse in the British child-care system that begins as a powerful and gripping tale, but poor pacing and characters that can feel like Dickensian clichés weaken its impact somewhat. Fourteen-year-old Nick, the titular protagonist, gets home from a day of cutting school to find that his mother has overdosed on heroin. Orphaned, he eventually ends up in the child-care system at the Meadow Hill Assessment Centre, where the other boys--as well as the housemaster--beat him, and only the kindly Mr. Creal offers any hope. That hope is soon shattered when Creal rapes Nick, and Nick's attempts to tell anyone what happened result in verbal abuse, torture, and more rape. Burgess's story is harrowing and intense, and he excels at getting inside the heads and motivations of his many flawed characters. But once Nick decides to escape from the home, Burgess tries to channel too many elements of Oliver Twist, including Fagan reinvented as a Rastafarian. The ending feels more like a rushed epilogue than actual storytelling. Ages 14–up. (Dec.)
VOYA - Jane G. Van Wiemokly
After his mother overdoses in 1984 in Manchester, England, fourteen-year-old Nick is placed in a boys' home, where violence and sexual abuse are prevalent. Assistant director Creal has the perfect opportunity to sexually abuse boys, including Nick. After one failed attempt at escape, Nick and another friend manage to get away. Because he no longer trusts anyone, he lives on the street and begins working for a drug dealer. He survives for a while, until a chance sighting of Creal. It turns out that Creal has left his mark on others, who are now adults. One particular adult, the violent, petty criminal boyfriend of a female acquaintance, was also abused by Creal and plots to kill him. After a botched murder attempt and another violent confrontation, it is not until the last chapter and many years later that Nick can finally turn his life around. This is not a happy novel, despite Nick's strength and eventual survival. The horrors of violence, rape, and physical abuse are shown, as well as the long-term effects to Nick's psyche. It is not for the faint of heart, or for those in denial that seamy and dreadful things do happen. Children, teens, and even adults who are helpless deserve protection and due stewardship. A gritty and tragic indictment of "the system" is shown in this well-thought-out book. The compelling story had me page turning, even as I was appalled by what was happening. Reviewer: Jane G. Van Wiemokly
Children's Literature - Uma Krishnaswami
Fourteen-year-old Nicholas Dane doesn't live the good life; far from it. His mum, Muriel, to his knowledge, is a recovering drug addict trying to pull herself together, taking classes, stumbling and struggling. But at least they have each other, and at the opening of the book, it would appear that Nick's most pressing problem is his mother nagging at him to get out of bed and go to school. By the end of the day Muriel's dead on the rug and Nick has no home or family, a turn of events that launches this reworking in a 1980's setting of an Oliver Twist scenario. It turns out that Nick's mother not only died of an overdose but was using drugs in secret for years; on the heels of this disclosure, he gets sent to a home for boys. This is an arresting novel, with its emotional landscape of despair, violence, unresolved grief, and abuse both emotional and sexual. Nick's journey in the grim institutional setting is the most compelling part of the story, as the exploitation of the boys creeps surely toward chilling plausibility. British writer Burgess (Smack and Doing It) manages to shift the narrative viewpoint, mostly adroitly, among his many characters. This, along with connecting passages of omniscient narrative, allows the story's tension to be driven in large measure by the reader's remaining at all times a touch ahead of Nick. The length of time covered threatens to dissipate tension in places, but the story gathers momentum again in its sweep toward Nick's ultimate survival and even a semblance of hope. In its best passages, Nicholas Dane taps that place "where pain, fear, and love have become one and the same thing." When the last pages have been turned, haunting questions remain about the nature of power and violence, the ineffectiveness of social service interventions, and the punitive potential of institutional care. Reviewer: Uma Krishnaswami
School Library Journal
Gr 9 Up—Nicholas Dane is a typically rebellious 14-year-old, but he is loyal to the bone to those he cares about. When his mother dies from an overdose, he is sent to the worst home for boys in Manchester, England. Once there, he is tormented, beaten, and battered continuously by his peers and the staff. The abuse lessens when he is befriended by Tony Creal, one of the heads of the Home. Unfortunately, Mr. Creal is a master manipulator and has a long history of sexually preying on his charges. During this time, efforts to find some family for the boy turn up a very wealthy uncle who knew nothing about Nicholas's mother's existence, much less Nick's. The man is willing to pay for his nephew's education, but is told that the boy is incapable of behaving or learning and would be most success if he stayed in the home. Torture starts up again, after Nick refuses to spend time with Tony. One day a friend from the old neighborhood appears in Nicholas's division and saves him on some level. After a failed attempt to escape, the two flee and get involved with shady characters, running various errands for them. During this time, Nicholas erratically visits his mother's best friend, telling her that he is doing fine. As Nicholas gets caught up in street life, he learns that his experience in the home was not an isolated one. Burgess is a genius in drawing readers into a compelling, dramatic, and candid read. He examines the dark underbelly of society and the powers that corrupt and exploit its youth, yet offers an ultimately positive and hopeful message. This book will stay with readers long after they put it down.—Patty Saidenberg, George Jackson Academy, New York City
Kirkus Reviews
Coming from England, this bleak, violent, slang-inflected street saga exposes the machinations of power and villainy in Manchester's social services and criminal underworld. The year is 1984, and 14-year-old Nicholas Dane loses his mother and only known relative to an unexpected heroin overdose. An ineffective social worker decides leaving Nick with his mother's close friend is not in the teen's best interest and sends him to Meadow Hill, a home for boys. Violence from both staff and other boys is vicious and near-constant, and the one seemingly compassionate figure there turns out to be a terrifying master manipulator who sexually abuses boys with impunity. Institutional cruelty, domestic violence and the horrors of addiction are depicted in graphic and occasionally prurient detail. The omniscient narrator incisively explicates how shame, fear, anger and desperation motivate horrific acts, and Nick's transformation from warmhearted troublemaker to angry, secretive street kid illustrates both the effects of deliberate mistreatment and the uselessness of government intervention. A small note of hope ends this gripping but harsh tale. (Historical fiction. 15 & up)

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Product Details

Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)
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HL810L (what's this?)
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0 MB
Age Range:
14 - 17 Years

Read an Excerpt

Nick Dane lifted his head and stared blearily at the doorway. There was music blaring through, light flooding in. It sounded as if he was in the kitchen but he could have sworn he was still in bed.
His mother appeared. “Come on, wake up, I want you out, I’ve work to do,” she bellowed cheerfully. She headed back down the stairs toward the kitchen. “I’ll make you some porridge with cream and Goldfish syrup,” she called over her shoulder.
She’d called it that ever since he said it himself when he was three. One mistake: a lifetime of pain.
Nick looked at the clock.
“Bloody ’ell,” he yelled in outrage. “It’s only eight bloody fifteen. There’s hours!”
“I have work to do,” she yelled from downstairs. Nick rammed his head back under the covers, but he knew he’d never get to sleep now. He was too cross. Eight fifteen! He had another half an hour. What was she on?
“Turn the radio down!” he yelled. Why was it so loud? It was Adam Ant, music for morons. Then he realized it must be the radio in her bedroom to make so much racket up here. She was trying to irritate him out of bed.
“Get up and turn it down yourself,” she yelled, so he got up, slammed the door so hard the room shook, and went back to bed. No one was going to separate Nick Dane from his zees. No way.
Pause. Footsteps on the stairs. The door opens. The soft approach. “I’ve got an essay to hand in, I’m late. Come on, Nick. Please?”
He stared at her. “I’m in bed,” he explained, as if to a child. A flicker of irritation crossed her face. They stared at each other, mother and son, for a long moment. Then he relented.
“Mum,” he groaned, giving in. It was blackmail, it really was. She’d been studying for years now, trying to improve herself. She could do with improving. There was a good job at the end of it. Nick was hoping she’d make enough money to keep him in the style to which he wanted to become accustomed.
Muriel trotted back downstairs. Nick lay listening to the music for a while, then pulled the covers down. It felt cold. He pulled them back up. It felt warm. Bed was so good, it was a shame you had to fall asleep and miss it.
A few minutes later Muriel appeared in the doorway again like an overgrown pixie, with her dyed red hair and her lime green gown, baring her yellow teeth at him and trying to be cheerful.
“Come on! You promised. I’m not going till you’re up.”
“I’ve got nothing on.”
“I won’t look. Not that there’s much to see, from what I remember…”
Nick looked alarmed and she instantly regretted her joke.
“Only joking, I know it’s a monster,” she said.
“Shut up! Close the door, then.”
It was a deal. She closed the door and Nick tipped himself out of bed, pulled on his pants, and crawled to the loo. It was too early. Every morning of his life was too early. Life began at about one in the afternoon, everyone knew that.
Muriel stirred the porridge and made a cup of Nesquik milkshake. Her big boy, but he still had his sweet tooth. Nick walked in, with his school trousers on and his shirt undone. Lean, short for his age, but broad shoulders and good muscles. Fourteen years old. It was amazing watching him grow. He was a man—well, on the outside, anyway. He grunted at her, sat down, and started pouring the milkshake down him in long, thirsty gulps. Muriel struggled briefly, trying not to remind him not to drink all the milk first, because that would leave no room for breakfast, but as usual she couldn’t help herself. Nick glanced sideways at the kettle and ignored her. The milk dribbled down his chin. He tipped the glass back to let the last few drops trickle down and put it down with a bang.
She swallowed her irritation. Nick was one of those kids—the slightest hint of being told off and he was off in the other direction. Infuriating! Just like her when she was his age.
She didn’t want a row this morning. Neither of them were at their best first thing.
She decided to horrify him out the door. She started dancing around the kitchen, waving the spoon in the air, to the music on the radio.
“Karma karma karma karma karma chameleon, you come and go, you come and go—oh-oh-oh.”
Nick stared at her as if she’d just turned into a pink blancmange, and she was suddenly overcome with giggles. She clutched the edge of the table, put her wrist to her forehead, and rocked with silent laughter.
“You’re bonkers,” Nick told her. “You don’t even like that song.”
“Karma karma…” she started again.
“Right, that’s it, I’m off,” said Nick, jumping up. See? It worked. Like magic. “I’m too clever for my own good,” she thought to herself as he ran back into his bedroom and collected his bag.
“Eat your porridge,” she told him.
Nick paused in the hall. “No twattin’ about, then?” he said.
“No twatting about,” she agreed.
He came back in, lured by the irresistible Goldfish syrup, and stood next to the breakfast bar, spooning it down him and talking with his mouth full.
“What’s up with you this morning?” he asked her.
She smiled ruefully. “Exam hysteria. Jailhouse rock. Stir crazy,” she said.
“The exams aren’t for ages.”
“Essay. I’m late. The last one wasn’t good enough, I have to step up my game.”
Nick grunted. Typical. Muriel had blown school, left early, and gone straight on the dole and to a life of idle pleasure. Then she had Nick, went clean, got bored, went back to school, and discovered it was easy. She amazed herself. She never even knew she had a brain. All those years at school, she’d been no more able to concentrate than grow a tail, and now, suddenly, thirty years old, she could devour whole books for hours on end without so much as a glance out the window.
“Another thing for Muriel to get addicted to,” said Jenny, her only friend from the old days. It was true. Anything under an A and she became unbearable.
Once he was settled back in, Nick took his time. He went into his bedroom again, and she found him back lying on his bed. By the time he was on his way a second time he was only about five minutes earlier than normal.
He slammed the door and stamped off, his bag over his shoulder. She watched him walk along the road. Who knows, she might have confused him so much by getting him up early that he might actually end up at school by accident. It didn’t take much to make Nick walk the other way. He was hanging out down at the flats or playing football on the common, or smoking cigarettes or spliffs down behind the mill as often as he was in lessons.
He was a bad lot, her boy. Too good-looking, too bright—one of those kids who found it all too easy. Friends, schoolwork, girls. Leadership qualities, they said at school. The trouble was, he wasn’t so much a role model as a ringleader. If there was trouble to be had, Nick wouldn’t just be in it, he’d be trying to get everyone else in it as well. He had more than his fair share of charm, just like his dad. He was going to need it if he didn’t get his finger out.
And he was loyal. That was his saving grace. Once Nick decided you were one of his, he never let go.
Muriel waited by the window until he disappeared around the corner before going back into the kitchen and getting the gear out from inside the washing machine. It was becoming harder and harder to find somewhere Nick wasn’t prepared to go, but the washing machine was one place she could be sure he’d leave alone.
The kettle was still hot from her tea and she had the works prepared in a moment. She wanted to feel warm and cozy, so she turned the gas fire on and kneeled on the rug in front of it. She wrapped the belt around and pulled with her teeth until the veins popped out—little highways to pleasure.
It was the first time in ages. She’d been as good as gold for months. Well, years, actually, except for occasions like this. You were allowed the odd treat, weren’t you? Amazing chance, Mo having a brother just around the corner on Lime Road. She couldn’t believe it when she saw him walking past the newsagent the day before. He was staying overnight. Nice of him to drop it off for her on his way back, too. Seven in the morning didn’t often see Mo out of bed, she bet.
Dangerous, though. Far too convenient. The last thing she wanted was a dealer just around the corner. Yesterday morning it had been two bus rides to get to his place. Now he even knew where she lived! Shit. But he was only rarely around this way to see his brother … maybe it would be all right …
Three or four times a year. Why not?
Muriel knew she really ought to wait for Jenny to come around, but she couldn’t wait. She pushed the needle into the vein and closed her eyes. Heaven ran into her arm. There was nothing on earth like it.
She sighed and leaned forward until her head was resting on the floor in front of her knees, her arm stretched out before her and the needle still in the vein. Bliss overwhelmed her, and she stopped breathing. She was in exactly the same position an hour and a half later when Jenny called around for a little bit of bliss herself and, hearing no answer to her knock, peered through the curtains and saw her lying flat out on the fireside rug. She rapped on the pane, then started shouting. She put her shoulder to the door and bruised it, and had to rush around to get a key off old Mrs. Ash from next door. When they got inside, the thing that struck her was how Muriel had cooled on one side and was hot on the other, where the gas fire had been toasting her.
*   *   *
Mrs. Ash rushed around, ringing for the police and making Jenny a cup of tea, but what was the point of rushing now? Jenny looked anxiously at the bag of heroin on the floor next to her ex-friend. Oh my God! How hard it was to sit there and ignore it. She could pop it in her handbag and walk away … But Mrs. Ash must have seen it. She couldn’t risk it.
Anxiously, she began going through her pockets and handbag to make sure there was nothing dodgy in them, even though she didn’t think anyone was going to search her. That would be heartless, she was being paranoid … but paranoia doesn’t mean to say they’re not out to get you. Best be sure.
Mrs. Ash came back in with a steaming cup and stood next to her, staring at the corpse on the floor.
“I never knew, I never knew,” she kept saying. “Did you know?” she asked Jenny.
“Years ago,” said Jenny. “We both did. This was…” She began to crack up as she spoke. So unfair! When she thought of all the things she and Muriel had been through together, to OD now, when weeks and months went by without either of them using. To have her life snatched away just when she was making something of herself. All the time, she’d been this genius and none of them had even guessed. And now she was nothing, just this lump of cooling meat that looked like her on the carpet. It made Jenny feel sick to look at her.
At least Nick hadn’t come home to find her like this. And then she thought—Nicholas! What on earth was going to happen to him now that Muriel was gone? My God. He hadn’t got a soul in the world.

Text copyright © 2009 by Macmillan

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