Review Blog

Sep 26 2011

Strays by Ron Koertge

cover image

Walker Books, 2008. ISBN 9781406316124.
Ted is a teenaged boy who must deal with the death of his parents, subsequent entry into the world of foster care and life in a new school as a potential victim. The individuals with whom he interacts in the context of the drama have often been damaged and hurt by other people and life itself.
This is by no means a bleak story which dwells upon misery or abusive themes as so many contemporary narratives do. Instead, the characters involved in the welfare system and foster care are realistic in their essentially good intentions but imperfect makeup. Ted himself is a resilient soul possessing a mature outlook, a philosophical rationale and the capacity to silently communicate with animals.
The roles of animals are symbolic of human experiences, ranging through suffering due to abandonment and neglect to flourishing from compassion and loving care. It is soon appreciated that Ted is no Dr. Doolittle but he is a lonely and scared boy who has learned to seek solace and companionship from animals when humans have failed him. Anyone who has hugged a friendly dog will understand and identify with this.
Ted's predicament could reasonably have been the start of a spiral descending into dysfunction, disengagement and withdrawal from structured and meaningful life. Instead, the acts of kindness, the instances of loyalty and the moments of support from his peers influence this child and provide him with a sense of hope and fulfillment.
This story is simple and affirming yet I was left feeling disappointed by the fact that it deserved greater detail and expansion than is possible in a novel which is pitched at teens who won't read more than two hundred pages. There is nothing wrong with this book, however it might have been a great one if Koertge had allowed his marvellous idea to develop by doing justice to the narrative and characters. The clipped episodic events and compactly summarized characters tended not to contribute to a narrative flow and left me feeling that I was reading a heavily edited version of the larger story which had been published for less capable readers.
Rob Welsh

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