Gideon the Cutpurse
Attitude: Unobjectionable → Positive
In Brief: Two youngsters making friends and mustering resources to return them home. Time travel and paradoxes. Big and small families. Peter's parents' effective separation and reconciliation. Life in the Past and the Present.
Series: Gideon the Cutpurse
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Published in: 2006
Age Range: Young Teens+
Period: 18th C
Setting: Derbyshire / London
- Peter Schock is a 12-year-old, an only child whose mother works abroad and whose father is too busy to celebrate his birthday.
- Kate Dyer is Peter's age, the oldest of six children in a Derbyshire family.
- Gideon Seymour is a young man, former servant and conscience of Lord Luxon who now employs the villainous Tar Man to do his dirty work.
Peter & Kate are thrown back to the 18th century and are befriended by Gideon and his new employers, the Byng family. They travel to London to retrieve the device which brought them here while their respective 21st-century families search for them, their hope kept alive by the occasional slip which Peter & Kate make back to the present day.
What makes this book stand out from the crowd, at least in its more engaging first half? It's not the time-travel premise; that's been done to death. Neither is it the plotline which has the children chasing the device which will return them home. That, too, is hardly a novelty. I think the appeal of this story — over and above its competent and moderately imaginative plot and construction — is the characters: Kate, Peter and their families in the present; morally ambiguous Gideon and his enemies, and the more straightforward Byng family in the past.
There is a direct if unspoken contrast between Peter's family life, in a well-to-do suburb of London, and Kate's in a Derbyshire valley. He's an only child with a mother who, while not formally separated, is certainly absent. His father, well-meaning but busy, breaks a promise to celebrate his son's birthday and leaves it up to the au pair to take Peter to Derbyshire to visit her friend, Mrs Dyer. Which brings us to Kate's family: a family of six children, a scientist father and a housewife mother. Lastly, in the past, we meet the Byngs, a family with several children, friends and relatives who offer Peter and Kate an open welcome. The author makes no particular comment on the disparity between the families, and Peter's parents are not monsters. But when the children disappear, Kate's parents are bewildered, while Peter's feel guilty. But when she hears that he's disappeared, Peter's mother comes straight back — effectively losing her job — and there are no recriminations but merely a resolve to do the right thing going forward.
Gideon's character, and the intrigue between him and Lord Luxon makes him a far more interesting character than the conventional guide-to-the-past which one finds in such stories. He was taken as an urchin under the wing of the rich Lord Luxon, and became his conscience and his tame thief. Finally he's escaped but remains embroiled in Luxon's schemes in spite of his own wishes. He is full of admiration for the description Peter gives of the 21st century, although it's a shame that Peter's viewpoint extends no further than the technological and material advances of the two hundred years which separate them: it would have been interesting to hear Gideon's view the amorality of modern society (whatever his view was).
Certainly, the author paints no golden picture of the past. The food is unpalatable and personal hygiene is slight. Kate has to wear uncomfortable clothes, and robbery and injustice are rife. But the children bear up with courage and resilience. On a pet subject, I'm grateful that the author didn't have Kate — a resourceful person — dress up as a boy “to give her more freedom”. I always feel it's more of an insult to female characters to suggest that only as boys can they exercise their native wit and intelligence.
The book's initial setting around Derbyshire gives it an uncommon feel and makes it a more intimate setting, for Kate in particular. This is the landscape where she grew up, which she travels every day to go to school, where her family — somewhere in the future — are looking for her. When she falls asleep she is briefly present in their 21st-century kitchen. There is a touching moment when the Byngs, whose house will become Kate's school in years to come, plant a tree in celebration of their new-born child and Kate speaks a panegyric about how girls will come and shelter and eat in the shade of its branches.
- Life in the 18th century
- Big vs Small families
For the first time Peter felt a terrible panic rise up from deep within him. He had not seriously considered before the possibility that he could not get back. Now the thought of being cut off from his home, friends, school, everything he knew or cared about, made his heart skip a beat. Never to taste ice-cream or peanut butter sandwiches again, never to watch television nor ride on a double-decker bus, never to finish the last fifty pages of The Lord of the Rings, never to see a jumbo jet thundering overhead above Richmond Green... never to have his mother take his face in her hands to kiss him goodnight. And then he remembered that the last thing he said to his father was “I hate you”. His throat constricted and tears pricked at his eyelids. He looked straight ahead without speaking. The summer landscape, instead of seeming wild and free and inviting as it did only a few moments ago, now appeared unbearably empty and unfamiliar.
Saturday 28th October 2006