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It is a surprise to find a book for young people that puts terrorism in a sympathetic light. Yet that's what Siobhan Dowd does in her story set in 1981 Ireland during the "Troubles," just north of the border in a town with strong republican sympathies. It is soon after Bobby Sands died in a hunger strike, insisting that members of the Provisional IRA, imprisoned by the British, should be treated as political prisoners rather than common criminals. The main character in Bog Child is 16-year-old Fergus, whose elder brother is in prison, and who joins the hunger strike. The parents are split in their stances: Fergus' father supports the IRA cause, but his mother cannot agree with her son starving himself to death.
Fergus gets caught up in the struggle because he is a runner, and he goes running on the hills, past an army checkpoint. He wins the trust of a British soldier at the checkpoint, but then he is coerced by an acquaintance into moving packages around from place to place. Fergus fears that he has been carrying high explosives, and is implicated in a bombing that killed innocent people. He feels terrible, but he is still under pressure to continue with the packages.
The third main plotline of the book is about the bog child, a corpse of a small person discovered by Fergus in the peat. It is an amazing archeological find: experts come in and estimate that the body is about two millennia old. Fergus joins in the dig to uncover the site, and he gets to know a British archeologist and her daughter, who end up renting a room in his house. Fergus is attracted to the girl, and there's some romance between them.
However, it is the bog child that Fergus dreams of, with vivid fantasies of her life and death, richly evocative of Irish history, giving the story an ethereal strand. These dreams inform his agonized personal struggle about which side to take in the battle between his mother and father, and whether to support his brother's politically-motivated slow suicide. He talks with his family, the archeologist girl, the British solder at the checkpoint, and his peers, and each interaction has some effect on him.
Bog Child is a vividly written book, done in just a few months by Siobhan Dowd just before she died of cancer. It makes clear the psychological and social costs of terrorism, and ultimately Fergus turns his back on the political struggle. However, Dowd also shows the passion of those who believe in their cause and are ready to use violence to win; further, she makes it easy to see how people are pressurized into working with terrorists, and even how they can believe in the justice of their actions.
So this will be a challenging book for young people. It helps to know something about the Irish history of the time, but even readers who don't know anything about it can still enjoy the book. The performance of the unabridged audiobook by Sile Bermingham is strong -- it is a surprising choice to have a woman narrate the story of a teenage boy, but it works well. She copes equally well with the characterization of Fergus' younger siblings as with the British soldier, and reading is very enjoyable.
As a side note, it is curious that the cover of the US edition features the same picture of a shirtless boy in a field as the UK edition, but that on the US version, the boy's torso has been covered over in orange highlighter. It's hard to understand what could be the reason for this change which looks very like censorship.
© 2009 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.