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What I Was

What I Was

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by Meg Rosoff
     
 

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Read Meg Rosoff's posts on the Penguin Blog.

Finn was a beautiful orphan. H was a prep school misfit. On a September afternoon many years ago they met on a beach on the coast of England, near the ancient fisherman’s hut Finn was squatting in with his woodstove, a case of books, a striped blanket and a cat. H insinuates his way into Finn’s

Overview

Read Meg Rosoff's posts on the Penguin Blog.

Finn was a beautiful orphan. H was a prep school misfit. On a September afternoon many years ago they met on a beach on the coast of England, near the ancient fisherman’s hut Finn was squatting in with his woodstove, a case of books, a striped blanket and a cat. H insinuates his way into Finn’s life—his blazing wood fires and fishing expeditions. Their friendship deepens, offering H the freedom and human connection that has always eluded him. But all too soon the idyll of their relationship is shaken by a heart-wrenching scandal.

What I Was is the unforgettable story of H at the end of his life looking back on this friendship, which has shaped and obsessed him for nearly a century.

Editorial Reviews

Booklist
Rosoff writes with startling acuity about a young person's search for self and for meaningful connection... this anguished story is sure to attract a crossover audience of older teens, as well as adults, who will appreciate Rosoff's questions about the nature of time, memory, and the events that become, over a life's arc, the defining moments.
People
This is a richly patterned work about secrets, what the tide hides and reveals and how an innocent crush can utterly change everything.
San Francisco Chronicle
There is magic, power and mystery in the novel, without anyone ever waving a wand.
Washington Post
This whole novel is built on a surprise (which caught me totally unaware), but beyond the surprise lies the beauty of what it means to live without junk in your life, only essential beauty, together with the reminder that all of it—the junk and the beauty—will be gone in a twinkling. This is a lovely book.
Los Angeles Times
What I Was shows us a more confident author whose poetry lies in her elegant, straightforward descriptions of human activity—cooking crabs, climbing a chalk cliff, learning to sail—instead of lurid embellishment. The result is a beautifully crafted tale that seems, like its protagonist, both enduringly old and fluently new.
Boston Globe
(Rosoff's) portrayal of adolescent awakening is intimate and thoroughly persuasive.
Carolyn See
This whole novel is built on a surprise (which caught me totally unaware), but beyond the surprise lies the beauty of what it means to live without junk in your life, only essential beauty, together with the reminder that all of it—the junk and the beauty—will be gone in a twinkling. This is a lovely book.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Former YA author Rosoff delivers an affecting buddy story about two adolescent boys in 1960s Britain. An unnamed man recounts his time as a disgruntled student at St. Oswald's boarding school; upon ditching an outdoor physical education class jog, he stumbles upon a mysterious fellow teen named Finn who lives alone and off the grid in a hut by the sea. The protagonist, enraptured by his newfound friend, makes it his business to spend as much time as possible with Finn, a major challenge considering school curfews and that the hut can only be accessed during low tide. Weeks go by and Finn falls ill, setting the stage for a surprising revelation that will dramatically transform both boys. Rosoff's unconventional coming-of-age tale is elegantly crafted, though some readers might be turned off by the narrator's unrelenting cynicism (particularly in his handling of another Oswald schoolboy), and the warning shots the narrator fires off about global warming are unnecessary. Nonetheless, Rosoff elegantly portrays how we often become who we need to be. (Jan.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Growing up is tough to do. The narrator of Rosoff's foray into adult literature has been shuffled through two upper-class boarding schools and now is on his third. His tenure at St. Oswald's looks tenuous as well until one day during a long run along the coastline. Taking a break from the mandatory exercise, our narrator meets Finn, who lives alone in a small hut near the beach free from school and parents. The two boys come together in an idyllic friendship that eventually ends in tragedy. Rosoff, the Printz Award-winning author of How I Live Now, creates a coming-of-age tale full of mystery and angst. Relying on a narrator looking back at his life, the reader is in for an intriguing read. Recommended for larger collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ9/15/07.]
—Robin Nesbitt

School Library Journal

Adult/High School- The poignant reminiscences of an old man about the life-changing experiences of his 16th year are recounted with spellbinding immediacy and evocative language. Events take place in 1962, in a boy's boarding school on the sinking coastline of East Anglia. The cynical narrator has been expelled from two other boarding schools and longs for freedom from the sadistic discipline, cruel bullying, and mind-numbing curriculum. He wants to be free like Finn, the young teen who lives alone in a fisherman's hut by the sea. For most of the book the narrator's name is withheld. Readers know only that he is lonely, self-conscious, and yearns to be strong and independent. Finn welcomes him somewhat reluctantly, but soon the two meet regularly and a deep (if one-sided) emotional attachment is formed. Finn instructs his awkward new friend in the ways of survival and the history of this remote place as they explore the sinking rugged coast with its mysterious coves and ancient forts. The narrator disregards curfew as he regularly sneaks out of St. Oswald's School, recklessly racing the incoming tides and the undertow in order to arrive at Finn's cottage. Love and friendship are a dominant theme of the book. As the narrator's obsession with Finn and Finn's romantic medieval existence deepens, he becomes insensitive to the yearning friendship of a fellow classmate, with tragic results. Readers may have suspicions as to Finn's true identity but will believe sympathetically in the narrator's naïveté and be greatly moved by his story.-Jackie Gropman, Chantilly Regional Library, Fairfax County, VA

Kirkus Reviews
An extraordinary account of an obsessive friendship between a prep-school misfit and a beautiful orphan. As the book opens, the 16-year-old narrator-unnamed until the final pages-is entering his third prep school in as many years. The latest, St. Oswald's School for Boys, on an isolated coast of England, practices a bracing rigidity that forbids heat and buttons on clothing, amongst other things. The narrator shows his disdain for the rules with apathy rather than rebellion, until the day he meets Finn on a nearby beach. The narrator is immediately intrigued by the quiet boy with impossibly perfect, delicate features, particularly when he learns that since his grandmother died four years earlier, Finn has lived autonomously in a hut on the beach. With no birth registration or immediate family, it has been easy for Finn to slip under the radar, avoiding school and society in general. The narrator's interest turns to infatuation, and soon he is sneaking out of the school to visit Finn every chance he gets, including hatching an elaborate lie that allows him to spend an entire school holiday at Finn's hut. The only stumbling block is his roommate, Reese, whose own homoerotic tendencies implore him to find out more. But the narrator's carefully constructed world crumbles when St. Oswald's goes under quarantine for glandular fever, and he passes the disease along to his secret friend. Though he tries to nurse Finn back to health, the strain becomes too much, and on a devastating night, one that implicates Reese as well, the narrator is forced to unite his two worlds, and learns that mysterious Finn has been harboring a secret of his own. Rosoff's voice is clear and her story is simple, butwith it she delivers a profound amalgamation of deeper themes. Great Expectations meets Death in Venice in this visceral, intensely surprising tale from Rosoff (Just in Case, 2006, etc.).
From the Publisher
"This memorable, atmospheric novel has a richness and light that rewards multiple readings....In her compassionate, honest meditation on the human condition, Rosoff takes us places no one else can." –Toronto Star

"There is a magic, power, and mystery in the novel, without anyone ever waving a wand." –San Francisco Chronicle

"A richly patterned work about secrets, what the tide hides and reveals, and how an innocent crush can utterly change everything." –People, 4 stars

"[Rosoff's] poetry lies in her elegant, straightforward descriptions of human activity – cooking crabs, climbing a chalk cliff, learning to sail – instead of lurid embellishment. The result is a beautifully crafted tale that seems, like its protagonist, both enduringly old and fluently new." –Los Angeles Times

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781101213957
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
01/24/2008
Sold by:
Penguin Group
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
224
Sales rank:
903,109
File size:
269 KB

Read an Excerpt

one

Rule number one: Trust no one.

By the time we reached St. Oswald’s, fog had completely smothered the coast. Even this far inland, the mist was impenetrable; our white headlights merely illuminated the fact that we -couldn’t see. Hunched over the wheel, father edged the car forward a few feet at a time. We might have driven off En-gland and into the sea if not for a boy waving a torch in bored zigzags by the school entrance.

Father came to a halt in front of the main hall, set the brake, pulled my bag out of the boot, and turned to me in what he probably imagined was a soldierly manner. "Well,"he said, "this is it."

This is what? I stared at the gloomy Victorian building and imagined those same words used by fathers sending their sons off into hopeless battle, up treacherous mountains, across the Russian steppes. They seemed particularly inappropriate -here. All I could see was a depressed institution of secondary education suitably shrouded in fog. But I said nothing, having learned a thing or two in sixteen years of carefully judged mediocrity, including the value of silence.

It was my father’s idea that I attend St. Oswald’s, whose long history and low standards fitted his requirements exactly. He must have rejoiced that such a school -existed–one that would accept his miserable failure of a son and attempt to transform him (me) into a useful member of society, a lawyer, say, or someone who worked in the City.

"It’s time you sorted yourself out," he said. "You’re nearly a man." But a less true description could scarcely have been uttered. I was barely managing to get by as a boy.

My father shook hands with our welcoming committee as if he, not I, -were matriculating, and a few moments of chat with headmaster and -house-master ensued. Wasn’t the weather ... hadn’t standards ... next thing we know ... one can only ...

I stood by, half listening, knowing the script by heart.

When we returned to the car, father cleared his throat, gazed off into the middle distance, and suggested that I take this opportunity to make amends for my last two educational disasters. And then, with a pessimistic handshake and a brief clasp of my shoulder, he was off.

A bored prefect led me away from the main school toward a collection of rectangular brick buildings arranged around a bleak little courtyard. In the misty darkness, my future home uncannily resembled a prison. As we entered Mogg -House (Gordon -Clifton—Mogg, -house-master), the weight of the nineteenth century settled around my shoulders like a shroud. Tall brick walls and narrow arched windows seemed designed to admit as little light and air as possible. The architect’s philosophy was obvious: starve the human spirit, yes, but subtly, employing economies of dimension and scale. I could tell from -here that the rooms would be dark all year round, freezing in winter, cramped and airless in summer. As I later discovered, St. Oswald’s specialized in architectural -sadism–even the new science lab (pride of the establishment) featured brown glass and -breeze—block walls dating from 1958, height of the ugly unfriendly architecture movement.

Up three flights of stairs and down a long featureless corridor we trudged. At the end, the older boy dumped my bag, pounded on the door, and left without waiting for an answer. After a time I was granted entry to a small dormitory room where three boys looked me over impassively, as if checking out a long shot in the paddock at Cheltenham.

There was a moment of silence.

"I’m Barrett," said the -blunt—featured one in the middle, producing a small black book from his pocket and pointing to the others in turn. "Gibbon. And Reese."

Reese giggled. Barrett made some notes in his little book, then turned to Gibbon. "I give him two terms,"he said. "You?"

Gibbon, tallest of the three, peered at me closely. For a moment, I thought he might ask to see my teeth. He pulled two crisp pound notes out of an expensive calfskin wallet. "Three terms,"he said.

I emptied all expression from my face, met and held his gecko eyes.

"Maybe four."

"Choose,"said Barrett impatiently, pencil poised. He squinted out from under a school cap pulled low over his face, like a bookmaker’s visor.

"Three, then."

Barrett made a note in his book.

"I say four." Reese dug into a pocket and pulled out a handful of coins, mainly pennies. He was the least impressive of the three.

Barrett accepted the coins and looked up at me. "You in?"

Was I in on a bet predicting the demise of my own academic career? Well, it certainly offered a variation on the usual welcome. I pushed past them, unpacked my bag into a metal trunk, made up my narrow bed with regulation starched sheets, burrowed down under the covers, and went to sleep.

two

Rule number two: Keep something back.

I WILL tell you that I’m not one of those heroes who attracts admiration for his physical attributes. Picture a boy, small for his age, ears stuck at right angles to his head, hair the texture of straw and the color of mouse. Mouth: tight. Eyes: wary, alert.

You might say that superficial flaws -were not uncommon in boys my age, but in my experience this was untrue. Stretching left, right, up, down, and diagonally in every St. Oswald’s class picture -were boys of a more usual -type–boys with strong jaws, straight noses, and thick hair of definite color; boys with long, straight limbs and bold, confident expressions; boys with skills, inborn talents, a ge-ne-tically determined genius for politics or Latin or the law.

In such pictures, my face (blurry and unformed) always looked shifty and somewhat imbecilic, as if the flesh itself realized that the impression I was making was a bad one, even as the shutter clicked.
Did I mention that St. Oswald’s was my third school? The first two asked me (not entirely politely) to leave, owing to the deplorable nature of my behavior and grades. In my defense, I’d like to point out that my behavior was not deplorable if by deplorable you mean rude, belligerent, violent, and -antisocial–setting fire to the library, stabbing or raping a teacher. By deplorable they meant "less than dedicated to study," "less than competent at writing essays," "less than interesting to the head and the board of governors." Given my gentle failings, their assessment strikes me now as unnecessarily cruel, and makes me wonder how they labeled the student who opened fire with an -AK—47 in the middle of chapel.

My lack of distinction was mainly restricted to photographs and schoolwork. When it came to opinions, I was (I am) like the sword of Zorro: swift, incisive, deadly. My opinions on the role of secondary education, for instance, are absolute. In my opinion, this school and its contemporaries -were nothing more than cheap merchants of social status, selling an inflated sense of -self—worth to -middle—class boys of no par-tic-u-lar merit.

I will, however, grant them something. Without the first, I would not have ended up at the second. Without the second, I would not have attended St. Oswald’s. Without St. Oswald’s, I would not have met Finn.
Without Finn, there would be no story.

three

It all began on the coast of East Anglia, past the indentation where the River Ore ran salt and melted into the sea. There, a bit of land stuck out from the mainland, a small peninsula roughly shaped like a rat’s nose. In maps (old maps), this peninsula was labeled "The Stele," after a -seventh—century commemorative stone marker, or "stele," found very close to school property in 1825.

The letter my school sent to prospective parents contained a -three—quarter—page description of the area. Location was a selling point ("salt air contributes to strong lungs and clear minds"), and elegant italics explained how the stele was found half buried in earth, the stone large and heavy and probably transported from Lindisfarne on the Northumbrian coast. Such markers -were not uncommon in this part of the country, but this one boasted an excellent carved portrait of Saint Oswald, a -seventh—century king of Britain, with the -Anglo—Saxon equivalent of "Oswald Was -Here" carved on it. The stone itself is long gone, moved to the British Museum.

St. Oswald’s School for Boys, which you won’t have heard of, was situated two miles inland. The school road stretched between the A road and the coast in a more or less straight line, with a footpath running parallel for most of its length. At the sea, the road turned left (north), while the footpath turned right (south). Following the footpath, you could reach The Stele in about twenty -minutes–or at least you could reach the canal of deep water that separated it from the mainland. For only a few hours a day, when the tide was very low, the little peninsula could be accessed via a damp sand causeway. All around it, salt marsh and reed beds provided homes for nesting waders and -waterfowl–oystercatchers, little terns, cormorants, -gulls–and had once done the same for Roman, Saxon, and Viking settlers.

A few miles and a million -light—years away was my home from home, Mogg -House, a -four—story building with studies (tiny as tombs) on the bottom floor, communal dormitories in the middle, and bedrooms with living rooms on the floors above. Boys my age lived on the top floor in rooms designed for two, which now -housed four, thanks to our bursar’s desire to maximize revenues. Loos -were located on the ground floor, and to this day I believe I retain exceptional bladder control thanks to the incon-ve-nience of the con-ve-niences. It was something we developed with time and practice, like proficiency in maths or arpeggio technique.

Despite the brutality of the coastal winters, we lived without heat. Warmth was considered antithetical to the development of the immune system, and we -were expected to possess an almost superhuman tolerance for cold. On a positive note, the conditions at my previous -school–situated two hundred miles farther -north–had been worse. There, we kept warm in winter by sleeping in our clothes, in woolen jerseys, socks, and trousers with pajamas layered on top, and awoke most mornings to banks of snow under the open windows and ice in the toilets.

At St. Oswald’s, we fell out of bed at the sound of a bell, buttoned a clean collar (if we had one) onto our shirts, pulled on yesterday’s underwear, flannel trousers, socks, and heavy black shoes, and headed downstairs for a breakfast of gray porridge and cold toast. Postwar rationing had finished eight years before, but the habit of mean, depressing food lingered in school kitchens throughout the land. After breakfast came chapel, then five lessons on the trot without break, followed by lunch (pink sausages, green liver, brown stew, cabbage boiled to stinking transparency), followed by an afternoon dedicated to sport or the tedium of cadet parade, followed by supper, followed by prep, followed by bed.

Beneath this relatively straightforward schedule lurked the shady regions of school life where the real dramas -were played out, where elaborate hierarchies established life’s winners and losers, ranking each carefully according to the -ill—defined caste system of school life. As in the outside world, social mobility barely existed; one’s status at the start determined whether life would be filled with misery or triumph. I don’t recall any boy improving his lot significantly in the course of his school years, though perhaps memory fails me.

"Oi, you!"

Three days in. I emerged from my own thoughts to meet the gaze of an imperious upper sixth.

"You!"

Yes, I sighed inwardly. Me.

"What’s that?"He pointed to the bottom button of my school blazer.

It’s a woodpecker, you creeping maggot.

He reached over with calm deliberation and tore the button off. It’s worth noting that this required considerable effort. And left a large hole.

"Unbuttoned," he spat. "Understood?"

I stared.

"The correct answer, scum, is Yes, sir."

"Yes, sir."I had learned to imbue a lack of sarcasm with infinite subtlety.

He turned on his heel and stalked off, while I scrabbled in the grass for my button. I felt no par-tic-u-lar shame, having encountered dozens of chippy little fascists in my time, but continued to wonder at their delusions.

Our world revolved around school rules, rules as mysterious and arcane as the murkier corners of a papal cabal. Bottom button of blazer open or not, left hand in pocket or not, diagonal or straight crossing of the courtyard, running or walking on the lawn, books in right hand or left, blue ink or black, cap tipped forward or back. There was no cribsheet, no list to consult, no -house book embossed Rules. Regulations merely existed, bobbing to the surface of school life like turds. We took their randomness, their rigidity, their sheer number, for granted, and we obeyed because they -were there, because we -were newer or younger or weaker than the enforcers, because to fill our heads with more meaningful information might require the use of our critical faculties. Which would lead to doubts about the -whole system. Which would lead to social and economic collapse and the end of life as we knew it.
It was easier just to get on with it.

Let me be clear: many boys (pop-u-lar, clever, athletic) had a perfectly happy time at St. Oswald’s; I simply was not one of them. And yet I had certain -attributes–a face that hid emotion, a healthy contempt for fair -play–that served me well. I was not destined for glittering prizes, but I was not without qualities.
Our lessons took place beneath the drafty high ceilings of the main school building, always accompanied by the random clatter and crash of -nineteenth—century plumbing. Day after day, I sat with an earnest but uncomprehending look on my face, knowing that it was exactly this expression that made teachers skip to the boy on my left. They hated explaining things over and -over–it bored them, caused them to despise their lives.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the depressing familiarity of these conditions, I settled into St. Oswald’s at once.

four

One of the more notable facts about the stretch of coastline I have just described is that it is sinking at great speed. This is the sort of fact about which it has become fashionable to panic in the middle of the -twenty—first century, when nearly everyone agrees that our planet is on its last legs, but it has been true of this stretch of land for at least a thousand years. In contrast, the opposite coast in Wales is rising, which suggests that all of En-gland is slowly tipping into the sea. Once the eastern coast sinks and the western rises high enough, the entire country will slip gently underwater in a flurry of bubbles and formal protests from the -House of Lords. I greatly look forward to this gentle slipping into oblivion and believe it will do our nation no end of good.

Meet the Author

Meg Rosoff was born in Boston, USA. She has worked in publishing, public relations and most recently advertising, but thinks the best job in the world would be head gardener for Regents Park. Meg lives in Highbury, North London. She is the author of Just in Case, What I Was and How I Live Now.

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What I Was 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Black_Violets More than 1 year ago
I am a big Meg Rosoff fan after reading How I Live Now but this book completely let me down. I have no problems with hard subjects or anything like that but this book seemed to drift.... the idea was great but the plot and writing was completely dull. The only thing that kept me reading was getting to the end. The end is why i gave it 2 stars instead of one. It starts out with a simple boy trying to find his way in a school he hates but the plot turns to him having some sort of crush on another boy ... this could have been great but it wasn't. If you want a good book read How I live Now by her or Just in Case and skip this one.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
harstan More than 1 year ago
H looks back over the decades to the moment that defined his life. His father determined that H was to attend St. Oswald¿s on the East Anglia coast and dumps his teenage offspring there. Having a lot of freedom prior to the drop off, H struggled with the school¿s rules and the decorum expected of him by his three roommates (Barrett, Gibbon and Reese).

Bored, the sixteen years old H wanders the nearby beach when he meets Finn, a squatter living in a ramshackle fisherman¿s hut. Finn is beautiful and alive in spite of his being an orphan whose only companions are books and a cat. H and Finn become friends doing things together like fishing, sailing, and crab cooking. However, their idyll ended with death, scandal and a police inquiry. Now eight decades later, Finn returns to East Anglia JUST IN CASE he does not know.

This engaging character study starts off a bit slow as readers share the ennui engulfing Finn. However, once Finn and H become friends, the story line accelerates into a combination buddy-coming of age drama. Well written and insightful fans will appreciate Meg Rosoff¿s fine tale of paradise found and paradise lost.

Harriet Klausner
Guest More than 1 year ago
I wasn't sure about this one, it started off a bit slow, but I'm glad I stuck with it. Soon enough it picked up. A sweet, innocent and sad coming of age story, beautifully told. The end was a surprise and I felt sad for chances and friendships lost and stories told. Moving and compelling this is a good read.