The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts by Avi

I think that there is some good historical fiction for children and this story, told from the perspective of a twelve year old boy who discovers that his father is missing on the night of a terrible storm, is a tour through the seamy world of thievery and poorhouses; a sort of “Fielding Light” in some ways, although Fielding’s work perhaps has the immediacy of being contemporary which Avi’s cannot. Also, Fielding’s is a lot saucier which would be inappropriate in a book for children!

Oliver is a resourceful boy and a solid narrator as we follow him through the situation in which he finds himself. Left with no money and a smudged note, he tries to remain away from the adults who would confine him under the auspices of the law. His father, not being a popular man, has ruffled the feathers of a few influential people in the seaside town of Melcombe Regis and Oliver has to navigate their attempts to corral him, their motives being less than favourable.

Deciding to go to London to find his sister, Oliver encounters highwaymen and becomes an unwilling pawn in their designs for acquiring wealth.

There is lots to recommend this book for your older children. The action is well-paced and the evocation of place is done effectively. Avi ends most chapters with a suspenseful sentence which at times I found a little irritating but as a younger reader, they would prompt me to question where the narrative is headed and to read on, and so, they serve their purpose. I liked the inclusion of longer chapter titles which emulates fiction of the period and the depiction of Oliver’s time in the poorhouse gives an introduction to the way that poverty affected the lives of those less fortunate and how adults are not always nurturing.

One thing that I would have liked to have experienced more is Oliver’s emotions. He is a twelve year old boy, abandoned by his father, without anyone to call upon and I found his narrative a little bland in this regard. Maybe this is as a result of the first person viewpoint, a third person narrator perhaps being able to show more effectively the fear and uncertainty that Oliver was bound to be feeling, as an observer.

However, it conjured the world of the 1700s with its risks and its punishments very well.

This review was first published on Reedsy Discovery.

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