A reissue of the novel that dramatically changed children's literature in the 20th century.
Julia Cunningham's ground-breaking novel, first published in 1965 and unavailable in any edition for a decade, is reissued for a whole new generation of readers to call their own. "Here . . . is the story of a boy who discovers himself, who basically comes to grips with that most contemporary of problems, the isolation of the individual. It is told within the near-classic framework of the story of the orphan who survives and escapes maltreatment to find love, but it is told in frank, literate terms in the lingo of today's youngsters. And it has, as an additional dimension, a touch of the Gothic tale, a tinge of terror and a shade of romanticism." (The New York Herald Tribune)
About the Author
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This is the account that was found after it was all over. The very confused spelling has been corrected out of respect for the young writer, Gilly Ground.
This story starts and middles and ends with me. I guess I was always what is called different, or way out, or a little nuts. Like me or not, that's how it is. Oh, I look like any other eleven-year-old with a thatch of roughly cut brown hair, the correct number of fingers and toes, green eyes that can open or shut with sun or sleep, and a sort of overall foxy face, narrow at the chin. But I have a secret that nobody, not my dead grandmother or Mrs. Heister at the orphanage or my various unfortunate teachers, ever guessed. I am ferociously intelligent for my age and at ten I hide this. It is a weapon for defense as comforting as a very sharp knife worn between the skin and the shirt. When a person hasn't money in the pocket, good leather to walk around in, clothes that are his own, and a home address to back him up, I figure he has to have something else--anything. And I'm lucky. I'm not just bright, I'm brilliant, the way the sun is at noon. This is not a boast. It's the truth. It's my gold, my shelter, and my pride. It's completely my possession and I save it like an old miser to spend later. I purposely never learn to spell, which for the simple indicates stupidity. I fall all over my tongue when I am asked to read in school, and when we have a test in arithmetic I dig in the wrong answers very hard with a soft pencil and then smudge them over with my thumb to make it look as though I had tried.
I realize that I sound pretty unsavory, and maybe if my soft little grandmother had lived longer and I hadn'tbeen thrown into the orphanage the day before I got to be ten I might have chosen to stand and shine. She would have been proud of me and that would have given me a reason. But she didn't and she died poor, so my story, as me, really starts over a year ago on a chill autumn night having a rather scrawny arm pinched by the thunderous Mrs. Heister, superintendent of the village Home for Children.
This big, overstuffed woman has nothing against me. She doesn't know me that well. But to her I am another bed, another hunger to feed, and maybe another contact for her switch, which in all justice to her, she only uses when forced to by a major rebellion. She tells me there are no rules except cooperation, obedience, and attention to homework and then calls in a senior citizen of about fifteen, who leads me off like a small dog to a long, windowed room, points at a cot with red blankets, says "That's yours," and takes off.
I see the other inmates are already settled on their pillows, though they are giving me the eye all the time I am undressing, which is slightly embarrassing as my pajamas are colorfully patched from all views. One shrimpy guy across the aisle ventures a weak "Hello" and another voice from the corner region calls out, "You'll get used to it." But I reply to neither. I am alone and on my own since my grandmother has been tucked away forever, and I intend to stay that way. I bear no grudges toward the world. I just figure I've a lot to learn and to sort out after I've learned it and it will be easier if I don't get too tangled up with people, or at least, not until I'm better acquainted with how people are.
I insert myself between the covers and send a smile up to where my grandmother is--she always believed she was going to a better place where her house would have a kitchen as big as a barn, with tables and chairs and paintings of flowers on the walls, and if her new country is well organized, I'm certain she has all these things. This seems to warm the damp sheets and I fall into sleep like a ripe apple leaves the branch.
I wake up the next morning, as I will wake up all the next three hundred and sixty-five mornings until the changes come, to a series of bongs that bounce off my eardrums and then ring an extra time in my skull. I shake my head like trying to get water out of the ears and look around. The rest of them are already up and out and racing for the bathrooms next door. I lie quiet for a couple of minutes, a habit I adopt then and for good, to let the first line-up thin out, then I shovel myself out of bed, walk to the nearest unoccupied basin, douse my pointy face once, draw a brush rapidly over my front teeth, take a couple of swipes at my hair, and return to my clothes, which are no problem, being so basic: underwear, shorts, tee shirt, and sweater. My socks and shoes take an extra thirty seconds, as I am inclined to get dreamy over putting them on. If I am ever rich--I assume a cynical grin at my own foolishness--I will use up at least ten minutes on socks. This is the time my best thinking is done, so why waste it?
I observe the next step is to make beds, so I stretch my blanket tight over the under-rumple of sheets, smooth my pillow, and then follow the other guys outdoors and into a low, one-story building that, on entering, smells of old grease and new bread. We line up and with a maximum of clatter each take a metal tray, dented by generations of orphans, and shuffle forward slowly to where the cook, a man as skinny as his soups, slaps a heavy bowl of oatmeal on each one, contributing another dent. Later I make an enemy of this man by being nervous and accidentally letting the bowl slide onto the floor. And oatmeal, when slushed under many feet, is no pleasure to scrub up. So from then on, after we have helped ourselves to three chunks of bread and one square of butter and he is now stationed at the end of the counter pitchering out milk, he fixes me with a ration of milk one inch short of the brim of the glass. He also looks as if he'd like to plop a cockroach into the liquid, but never does. I rule him out as a person after this, though I've peeled many a peck of potatoes in his dour company.
After breakfast we get ten minutes to ourselves and then we are ticked off for Special Duties: sweeping, washing dishes from yesterday, shelving groceries, chopping wood for the three fireplaces, and all the other jobs needed to keep extreme dilapidation from becoming ruins.
I wasn't too bored by a series of experiments at washing dishes without soap until Mrs. Heister, on her daily Reviewing the Troops Inspection, caught me out, at which point I was put on the woodpile for two weeks. But mostly I just slog through without much conversation with my fellow workers, an attitude that crowns me with the nickname "Snobby Gilly." I don't mind this at all. It gives me privacy.
Next we have exercises and I wise up very soon that the last line is the best. Here I can bounce to the rhythms, fling my arms skyward when the other arms are doing the same, and generally not strain myself. These back-border positions are very popular and a couple of times I have to fight to keep mine, but I'm pretty tough in the muscles, thanks to having pushed a few thousand cartfuls of laundry up and down the streets of the village for my grandmother and sometimes helping her with the heavy ironing nights when her back ached so badly I'd catch tears in her eyes.
Then, from nine to one, school. There isn't much more to report about these long, stringy mornings, at least not my part in them, which, as I have mentioned earlier, is mostly taken up with stuttering through the readers, smearing tests with wrong answers, and gazing blank-eyed out of the windows, all so as to cement the impression that I'm stupid.
I glide through the boredom of these mornings with tolerance toward all except one thing--the terrible bonging bells that Mrs. Heister's got a passion for. Sometimes I try to create enough silence in my head so I can fold myself up in it as in a giant quilt, but this never really works. The whole day, from the bell that shocks me out of bed, that begins the continuous noise of the other guys talking and yelling, until the final whispering from bed to bed at night, seems like one huge tumult to my insides and sometimes I wish so fiercely to be free of it that I discover my teeth are grinding together like two sets of electric saws.
But there is a good hour. It arrives after lunch-with-leftovers, after the following study hall. We are instructed in this free period to go no farther than the village and back, but I know a place on a mountain I can get to, if I run both ways, where quiet lives and makes me welcome. There, in the center of a tall stand of pines, is a very ancient, very crumbly ruin of a tower. There are no signs or marks to tell its age and it is open to the sky. It has only five high steps inside that once wound to the top, and until I cleaned it up it was crammed with rubble and fallen fragments of its own stones. Nobody comes but me because the pathway is now so thick with thorn bushes and underbrush it's more like a tunnel than a trail, and this is my kingdom and my home. I see nobody. Well, it was nobody until one strange day when I was already eleven and the Hunter appeared. But I'm leapfrogging ahead of what happened.
In these days of my being ten, I sit on the small throne I construct by stacking four squared stones in the shape of one and gaze out through a jagged gap into a distance of river and hills and changing clouds, and let the peace gather itself up in me like the bunches of wild violets and cyclamen I used to pick for my grandmother on Sundays. Sometimes I am late getting back to the misery of the bells and Mrs. Heister sets me to weeding crabgrass with a rusty trowel that leaves stains like blood on my fingers. She never knows I rather take to this punishment because I am always careful to look sullen when she thrusts the trowel at me. I pretend the stubborn underground streamers are enemies and root up their tough, resisting menace like a knight unhorsing his foes, one by one, at some glittering, bannered tournament.
Then the bell bongs for recreation. This hour and a half before supper usually signals my limit for the absorption of clamor, so once the teams are chosen and the game begins, I stuff two grubby wads of cotton in my ears and watch the ball. But because I am blocked off from warning shouts and orders, I often louse up several plays before I am kicked off the field and at liberty to stow away in the tool shed at the edge of the yard until the next crashing of the gong, which means wash hands for dinner. Anyone can see why I am never very popular or sought after: a stuffed bear in school, from whom infrequent and inaccurate grunts of non-knowledge are extracted, and a true clunk at sports, besides offering nothing in the way of malice or inventiveness in between. This is the way I want it and have it.
After the repeat of the clattery trays, the grub, which is never uneatable, just all the time watery, and the last study hall, we are bonged to bed and the day ends in a couple of mild pillow fights, underbreath conferences, and small tussles, none of which I join, and after a grateful while of silence, I sleep.
So go my days for that grey and gritty year when I move one step forward from being ten to being eleven, and it is right after a birthday no one but me remembers that the first tremors of the craziness vibrate under my running feet.