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The Wall and the Wing

Style: Average

Attitude: Unobjectionable → Fairly Positive

In Brief: Offbeat children's adventure, combining modern day America with a faintly surreal and macabre cast of caricature villains, urban misfits and mysteriously powerful characters. Loyalty and friendship between youngsters. One mysterious character whose role resembles a guardian angel. Soul-searching after the youngsters steal and defraud in difficult circumstances.

Cover of The Wall and the Wing

Author: Laura Ruby

Publisher: HarperCollins

Published in: 2006

Age Range: Pre Teens

Period: Contemporary

Setting: New York

Genres:  AdventureFantasyFriendship


Characters:

  • Gurl is the an orphan, an earthbound misfit in a world where nearly everyone flies. Friendless and anonymous at first, she finds confidence when she discovers that she can turn invisible, and grows in friendship with a runaway cat and then with another orphan who's strangely adept at picking locks.
  • Bug is another leadfoot orphan who finds himself drawn to Gurl as they both escape the orphanage and try to solve the riddle of their past.

Synopsis:

Gurl discovers that she can become invisible at will, then runs away from her orphanage after being forced to steal and defraud to support the Matron's extravagant lifestyle. She takes with her Bug, another orphan whose dream is to become a Wing — an ace flyer — and Noodle, a cat with strangely human tendencies, who actually belongs to The Professor, a man who knows everything, thanks to The Hand which he bought on eBay.

The children are unaware of their past thanks to a set of toy monkeys owned by the orphanage Matron which steal your secrets. They are captured by “Sweetcheeks” Grabowski, king of one of the underworld gangs who knows the truth of their parentage. There is a final showdown at the Flyfest where all the actors end up on stage together.

Notes:

I don't know if they still show them, but there used to be a practice of filling in an unexpected gap between programmes on the telly by playing a short cartoon. They always seemed to be Czech, although that may just be my memory playing me false. And they always seemed a little surreal – quite different from the fairly standard fodder which came out of America, and different again from the gently quirky British style. Well, this book is a little like those cartoons.

From the first page, you know that things are going to be unusual. You're introduced to the Professor, a mysterious character whose grassy hair is not the most peculiar thing about him. Soon after, you learn that in this world, almost everyone can fly... somewhat. And you learn also that a special girl is about who is known as “The Wall”. And so you enter into a world both familiar (the more so, I assume, if you live in New York) and strange, as people fly, human-rats emerge from the sewers, and an orphanage of children is given names which reflect their characters as their memories have been removed by a set of toy monkeys.

At this story's heart, there is a conventional but pleasing tale of a boy and a girl, both about 12 years old, each of whom has a special talent, each of whom has forgotten his or her past, and who are brought together by cat who uses a flush toilet rather than cat litter and who imparts riddles to those he likes. Each mistrustful at first, thanks to the loveless environment of their orphanage, they gradually grow closer to the point where, when Bug's past is revealed, he chooses loyalty to Gurl over the original demands of his mission.

The other characters are largely stereotypes, which is in keeping with the story's slightly surreal milieu. You know the gangsters are on the wrong side of right because they have gangster-y names and refer to punitive dismemberments; you know the Matron's rotten because she spends all the orphanage money on expensive facelifts; you know the Professor's an oddball because he has grass instead of hair, wears a woman's housecoat, and is surrounded by cats. There are some amusing and satirical references, such as the description of the orphans' up-to-date fund-raising efforts, and the fact that the Professor bought an all-knowing hand (which communicates in sign-language) “off a guy on eBay”. (As do the gangsters buy a device which prevents Gurl from turning invisible). Watch out for the musicians whose job is to prevent the Alligators on the Underground from getting loose.

Outside the caricature Goodies and Baddies, there is a slightly questionable aspect to some of the actions of Gurl and Bug. In both cases, they're in difficult circumstances and have few options. Gurl is forced into stealing for the Matron, who's discovered her invisibility, when her cat is threatened. Interestingly, it's the Gangster who later points out that she did have a choice in the matter, although it would have meant sacrificing something precious to her. Likewise, the children live freely in a hotel, moving from empty room to empty room, using Gurl's invisibility and Bug's lock-picking skills to get by. When matters are all being resolved, Gurl does admit to her new-found parents all the things they'd done. It's a slight shame that there's no mention of restitution on her part, or by her parents (who are very rich) on her behalf.

The story leaves as many questions unanswered as it answers, which seems quite fitting in a book of this style. Although you eventually find out why people can fly, that very answer raises other questions. And there's never really any explanation of the graffiti-spraying Punks on the Underground, the Sewer Rats of Satan or the role the cats play. But for once in a while, that's fine. It doesn't seem to leave the reader wanting. One enigma is Jules, the only person who can see Gurl when she's invisible. He seems to turn up from time to time, typically when she's in trouble. At the end, he describes himself as a “Personal Assistant”. And then goes away again.

Overall, The Wall and the Wing produces an interesting and entertaining mixture of the real and identifiable and the surreal and imaginative. It manages to poke a little fun at our modern internet-ridden life and at the conventions of fiction involving gangster hideouts and grasping matrons. At its heart, though – and it does have a heart – is the story of a pair of youngsters who are trying to overcome their defects and find their place in the world.

Themes:

  • Are there any good orphanages?
  • The power of flight and invisibility

Bug waited till after lights-out before throwing off the covers and slipping from his bed. All around him, orphans sighed and orphans snored, orphans wheezed and orphans whistled. Now that was the good thing about boys, he thought, they could sleep through fireworks. He tiptoed across the dormitory, even though he didn't have to, and slipped from the room. It took him just a few minutes to pick the lock to the door that let him outside.

It was dark, of course, but not that dark; the city napped, but it was never out cold. Bug skipped down the long avenues, occasionally trying to fly. After finding that he couldn't fly any better outside the orphanage than inside, he mostly ran the dozens of blocks until he was close to Central Park. He found the building he was looking for and through the glass door saw Gurl standing in the darkened, deserted lobby, staring at the keypad of some sort of alarm system. Her face was crumpled up like a napkin and he knew she was about to cry any second.

That, he didn't need. Quickly, he picked the flimsy lock on the door and let himself inside. “What are you doing here?” he said.

She gasped, whirling around to stare at him. “How did you get in?”

Saturday 19th May 2007