A boy dresses up in a suit and tie and pretends to be grown-up. Or he throws a sheet over his head and pretends to be a monster. Or he puts on a hat - a baseball cap, a fireman's hat, a chef's hat - and tries on all of these different professions. These are all good, safe explorations of the possibilities out in the world, of the potential paths for the future.
But what if this pretend is not all good? Or all safe? What if this boy is changing his identity - wearing these different hats, so to speak - to save his very life?
This twist is at the heart of Geraldine McCaughrean's great romp of a novel, The Death-Defying Pepper Roux. Pepper is supposed to die by his fourteenth birthday. On the night he was born, Pepper's Aunty Mireille received a message from Saint Constance, or so she said, declaring that he would not live past this young age. Pepper does not question his fate, and so he's been living for as long as he can remember with his head constantly turning to look over his shoulder. When will death catch up with him? What will it look like?
The book begins on Pepper's fourteenth birthday. He wakes up to his crying mother and aunt, says goodbye to them, and heads out of the house and into town. He finds his sea captain father drunk in the local hotel, grabs his uniform coat and hat, runs to his father's ship and orders it to set sail. With his father's captain's cap on his head - see, another hat-on-head game of pretend! - he leaves land and perhaps leaves death too? "Did Death have a longer stride? Would it chase Pepper out to sea? Or could he truly outrun it, throw it off his scent?"
Despite its relentless theme of trying to escape death's icy grip, McCaughreans's novel is anything but serious. With slapstick humor and witty asides to the reader, The Death-Defying Pepper Roux is a funny, fast-paced read.
It's also a poignant coming of age story. Written as a series of episodic adventures, Pepper encounters new people, takes on new jobs, and new identities at every turn. Do people see what they expect? Or do they see what they choose? These are recurring questions as Pepper wears his different hats of identity. The people around him accept him for who he says he is. And because they do accept him, it is inside of these episodes, in between running from death, that he learns what it means to truly live. Pepper literally steps into other people's lives, and he lives them better than they ever did. Every place he goes, Pepper is simultaneously a boy on the run and someone else - a wanted convict, a journalist, a sailor. Through these dual lives he becomes more himself, more of a man, more of a compassionate human being.
Ultimately this is the story of a good-hearted boy who only wants to live, but in the process of trying to do just that he learns that simply living is not enough. Being connected, and loving and being loved, makes the choice to live ever so much richer.
Recommended for ages 10 and up
This review was originally published in March 2010, and has been updated for the May 2012 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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