Tuesday 7 December 2010
November was a big Morpurgo month for me. I got to reread Private Peaceful (my favourite Morpurgo so far), and also read a new to me Morpurgo book Kensuke's Kingdom. The back cover proclaims it a modern day Robinson Crusoe, and that it is.
Young Michael is an average English working class soccer-mad lad at the end of the 20th century. He lives with his parents, and his dog Stella ( as in Artois- best name for a dog ever? S-t-e-l-l-a! I may well name my next girlie dog Stella). His parents are reeling after being laid off from their jobs at the local brick factory. Michael's father goes off and buys a boat without consulting the family and makes preparations to sail around the world. Normal laid off from work behaviour. Sure we all say we want to do it, but who actually does?
The book has a great first sentence
"I disappeared on the night before my twelfth birthday."
We're instantly drawn in, wanting to know what happens. Given the whole Robinson Crusoe vibe it's no great surprise that Michael is soon washed overboard, and eventually finds his way to an island, an island where he isn't alone- he finds the reclusive Kensuke. An ageing Japanese man with limited English. The majority of the story is Michael and Kensuke's relationship on Kensuke's Kingdom.
One thing that annoyed me greatly about this book (and I realise that this is a ridiculously small point, but still, it annoyed me, and once a reader is annoyed by something like this, then your annoyance can only grow. And perhaps only an Australian could become annoyed by this?). On a map in the book Michael is washed overboard somewhere off the north-east corner of Australia, near the Great Barrier Reef. That's fine. My problem is that Kensuke's Kingdom is inhabited by orangutans and gibbons. Which is just impossible. Everyone knows orangutans only live on Borneo and Sumatra. Which is well and good. All he had to do was set the story up so that they travel up the north west coast of Australia and maybe he could find an orangutan studded island, and I wouldn't have been bovvered, but don't put him off the boat near Cairns.
One thing I loved, is that Kensuke spoke of honour, and acted based on honour. Which seems a quintessentially Japanese, and perhaps a forgotten virtue in the west. Kensuke does not want to take a particular course of action because it's "Not honourable thing to do." I think it's great to have a popular mainstream book raising honour as an issue for modern kids. It is a concept sorely lacking in our world.
Another thing that I loved was the cover art. I noticed the obvious Japanese design aesthetic, although unlike Mr Odle, I think that there is much more than a "very slight" resemblance to Hokusai’s eighteenth-century painting “The Great Wave off Kanagawa". I was just too lazy to check out the famous painting that it brought to mind. I think Michael Foreman is more than tipping his hat to Japanese traditional art iconography.
I do wonder about the ongoing legacy of Robinson Crusoe. I'm not sure if I ever read a version of it as a child or not. I don't remember that I did. But somehow I know the basic elements of the story. I think most people would, wouldn't they? Robinson Crusoe is a castaway on an island, where he meets Man Friday. Robinson Crusoe is another fabulous book, that like Kensuke's Kingdom, I will read as part of my 1001 quest.