2 out of 4 stars
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Red—Bastard Child by David J. Valley is the story of a boy born into a poor, single-parent family at the brink of the Great Depression. Red-headed Anthony Baca—known to all as Red—is an unplanned, illegitimate child who grows up with an abusive mother and two equally abusive brown-haired brothers. The family’s poverty makes life even more of a challenge for a boy who is constantly reminded he was and is unwanted. With the help of a few friends, Red rises above his circumstances, then sets out on a roller-coaster journey through life, with unexpected twists and turns and a stunning ending.
This is a boy’s adventure story that covers the span of a lifetime. As I read the first few chapters, I was reminded of two other great boy adventurers—Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. But while the tales of those boys covered a single pivotal time in each of their lives, this book gives us a grander show of Red’s life from childhood to adulthood. Every few chapters tell us about a new adventure—or misadventure. It’s the kind of story that might have once been told as a serial in a boys’ magazine, with each issue telling another tale.
The thing I liked best about the story was Red himself. He is an immediately likable character, despite a few obvious faults. He doesn’t always do the right thing, but he wants to and tries to. Despite the abuse of his childhood, he somehow finds the confidence and determination to press forward in search of a better, happier life. I found myself rooting for him at every stage and eagerly turning each page to see what would happen next. I also enjoyed the fact that Red’s story had several unpredictable moments. He goes to camp, meets his father, and goes to college. But each of these somewhat normal events includes a twist you wouldn’t expect.
As it turned out, the events of Red’s life are the main focus of the book. Unlike the famous Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer stories, there are no underlying social or political themes here. There are no deep messages, morals, or commentaries on life presented between the lines. What you read is what you get. For a younger reader, this might be sufficient. As an adult reader, I hoped for and wanted more from the book. I wanted a story that took me deeper into the life and times of the characters, not one that just skims the surface.
From a mature reader’s perspective, there is also a woeful lack of characterization in this book. We never learn very much about the inner workings of any of the characters, including Red. We read about their actions, but we aren’t given the privilege of learning their deeper thoughts and motives. This was something I struggled with as I read. I wanted to know what would happen to Red, but I also wanted to know more about how each adventure affected him at the core of his being. I wanted to know what was happening in the minds and souls of the characters, not just their actions.
Unfortunately, there were also many mechanical errors throughout the book, primarily involving punctuation. These errors are a distraction from the easy enjoyment that should come from reading a great adventure.
I hemmed and hawed a little before making the decision to give this book a rating of 2 out of 4 stars. Like Red, the story had a lot of potential, but it was never fully realized. There were too many mechanical errors throughout the book to merit a perfect score. And for me, the lack of characterization and meaningful subplots pulled another star out of the ranking. With two or three rounds of professional editing, this could be a good read for middle-school students looking for a straight-forward adventure story. But it probably won’t be a very satisfying read for more mature readers.
Red - Bastard Child
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