Ostrich Boys, Keith Gray

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I had never heard of Ostrich Boys prior to attending placement days in my school were I’ll be starting work as a trainee teacher in September, but on hearing that I would be teaching it to year 8 in the first half term of teaching, it became quite the priority to read. Keith Gray was also a mystery to me. A quote from The Herald on the back of the copy of the novel that I’ve read said ‘one can’t help thinking that if there were more writers like Keith Gray more teenagers would read’. I can’t help but think that it’s quite an accurate statement, as towards the end of the novel I was turning those pages as fast as I was the first time I read Nancy Drew.

The Premise

Blake, Sim and Kenny, disappointed by the funeral their best friend Ross received, decide to steal his ashes and take Ross to Ross, a small village in Scotland. Their spur of the moment decision results in them being immediately chased by Ross’ family as they head to the train station, and eventually being chased by the police. What should have been a simple train journey with plenty of supplies turns into a bit of a nightmare when Kenny loses his back, which contained not only all his cash but also his train ticket. The boys do what they can to continue heading north, from getting a lift with young men with a taxi, to bungee jumping to stealing scooters. As they travel, more is revealed about Ross and the role that each of them played in his death, which is later revealed to be a suicide. Angered by Ross’ sacrifice of life, Sim abandons the mission, but Kenny and Blake succeed in taking Ross’ ashes to Ross, leaving a part of him there as their final farewell.

The Verdict

Ostrich Boys far exceeded my expectations. Instead of the normal, sugar coated reality that teen fiction often portrays, this was a brutally honest portrayal of life, death and mourning. The first person narration of the smart, overweight and straight forward Blake meant that the reader didn’t discover all that had happened to Ross straight away, or from a removed third person perspective. As Blake came to understand his own part in his friend’s suicide, the reader slowly came to realise that the perfect painting of a life that his friends put forwards was far removed from the truth. Each member of the group played their own part in Ross’ death, and whilst they struggle to come to terms with that, it is obvious that they had no idea how bad the rest of his life was or how difficult he was finding it. The first real indication to me that they were ‘protesting too much’, to paraphrase Shakespeare, was when they talked about a story that Ross had written about a boy being torn apart by his parents’ different expectations. Up until then, I believed, along with the boys, that it was just the driver making up stories to assuage his guilt, but it became more obvious that Ross was actually a very troubled character. Gray doesn’t sugar coat any part of the suicide, or the boys’ reactions to it. It is a very real, very raw and emotional scene when they discover the truth.

The tried and tested trope of boys going on a physical journey that runs alongside their emotional journey is a little over done. Each barrier that they face physically is matched by an emotional one. Whilst for a young person reading the novel this might not be quite so tiresome, for me it was a little too much parallelism. However, it worked for Tolkein, so I supposed I can’t complain too much.

Overall, however, I can see how this is a valuable text for study by tweens and teens. Whilst the subject matter is quite challenging and heart-wrenching, actually it could be used as a therapeutic way of teaching them about suicide, friendship and depression. I’m a little stuck on how I would teach it, I’m going to have to put a lot of thought into it over the next couple of weeks. We’re often told as teachers to ensure that pupils know the story first before we teach it, but I don’t think I actually want pupils to read it with the knowledge that Ross committed suicide, as the revelation is quite important to how you review the story after you’ve read it.

Gray is an exciting author for young people, and I’ll definitely be looking out for others books by him to read. I’m looking forwards to teaching this novel, although I am going to go and read something a little happier in the meantime!

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