The Charlatan’s Boy: A Novel by Jonathan Rogers (WaterBrook) is a first person narrative following the adventures of a young boy known only as Grady, who is kept in deplorable conditions by a charlatan named Floyd, who made money by sticking Grady in a cage and charging people money to view a “genuine feechie man,” passing him as a grown native of their island home even at two years old.
Poor Grady is also told by everyone he knows that he is ugly because his chin is weak to the point of being nearly nonexistent, his ears stick out, and he has a unibrow. He also has no idea who his parents are or where he really comes from, as Floyd changes the story of where he got Grady as it suits him.
Disaster strikes when the audiences for feechie shows dry up, due to the “civilizer” populace no longer believing in the native populace they never see. In response, Floyd tells Grady he is not a real feechie, an identity Grady deeply mourns losing. Floyd adds insult to injury by changing the act to the Ugliest Boy in the World. This lasts until an even less physically attractive young man in found in a mining town. After floating unsatisfied from various cons, including reading the bumps on your head and I believe selling snake oil, they decide there’s only one thing to do to get back the show life they loved: invent a feechie scare.
The reasons some protective parents might not care for this book should be fairly obvious. If it’s not, you’re not in that group, and the warning wouldn’t apply to you, anyway. If you’re curious, though, the only positive element in the book that this sort would see is Grady’s desire to find his family, which takes a back seat to conning and scaring the people out of their money. But they can pretty much happily quit reading now, so let’s move on.
The most remarkable thing about Grady is, despite being reared by such a despicable man as Floyd, Grady is anything but ugly on the inside. He has a good heart and a desire for an honest life, even though fear of the unknown and emotional dependency on Floyd keeps him bound to the dishonest life he has always known. Another remarkable thing about Grady is the way he shares his story with the reader. It pretty much is the reader sitting with him in a treetop somewhere, listening to him storytelling in the first person for much of the book, which could have been quite dull, but Grady is strong enough to carry the technique and keep the pages flipping.
I am divided on the emotional abuse content. The book does show some things well, in Grady’s dependency upon Floyd and fear of leaving him, but he is water off a duck’s back about the repeated insults about his appearance. We admire Grady for his attitude, but I am doubtful that it is realistic at his age. Oh, a child like Grady might say “it’s no big deal,” but on some level, it is a huge deal. Only very late in the story did I spot any hint of the deep emotional wound such words would realistically inflict on that poor innocent baby. Some might find that enough, though. We’ll have to see how things develop along those lines in the next book.
This book does have much value to parents not immediately put off by Floyd and Grady’s profession and deceptions. I think it does a good job showing (and hence teaching) children the anatomy of a hoax and a scam so they can be more wise and not be deceived. Floyd’s professor persona as a Feechie expert in particular plants seeds that charlatans scaring you into actions that benefit them personally can come to you dressed in the robes of an authority/expert. That is no small lesson to learn in this day and age when fear-mongers can be found raving, and manipulating others, on both sides of the political aisle.
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