4 out of 4 stars
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If someone were to ask me, at a very high level, what this book is about, I would be honestly forced to answer that this book is about a game of tag between a large group of kids. Now, if you were to read that first sentence and walk away from this review, you would miss out on the fact that at a deeper level, it is about much more than just a simple childhood game. Tag: A Cautionary Tale by John Collings is a book about the human psyche, a metaphor for life, a creative tale of the “invention” of many of the classic childrens' games we love, and a witty banter between a curmudgeon and a sassy little girl.
The book is presented to the reader in two different time-periods and perspectives. The first, is of an old man who is recounting to a sassy young girl the exploits of his youth. He tries to explain to her the significance of the location they are in and how everything got to be as she sees it now. The other perspective is the story that the old man is telling the girl. In interweaving chapters, he tells part of the story and, in-between each episode, little Lizzie comments on the foolishness and ignorance of the characters in the old man’s tale. The story itself tells the tale of a group of children who accidentally invented the game of tag. Starting off with two simple rules everyone is running around and having fun. These kids quickly see opportunities to improve the game and begin to make additional rules. Although the intent is to make the game more fun for everyone, as more and more rules are invented, something is lost. The group dissolves into factions and chaos ensues.
I had a lot of fun reading this book. When you first start reading it, it comes off as a modest tale about a man who is reminiscing about the good old days that were his childhood. The book begins extremely simply (albeit very proficiently written) and comes off as suggestive of a simpler time of fun-loving innocence. What I liked most about this book, however, is that after a few chapters pass, the genius of this story comes out in droves. Like an onion, once you rip off the outer layer that is the simple childhood game, you are rewarded with layer after layer of sub-text. There is the (still light-hearted) suggestion that this group of kids not only “invented” the game of tag, but in the process of doing so, also “invented” many other childhood games we know and love. There is the witty banter between the naïvety of the old man and the sassy, but not exactly wrong, little Lizzie. This banter reeks of a battle between the super-ego and the id. There is a dark and foreboding layer that outlines how low humanity can stoop simply by imposing rule after rule upon its occupants. This layer is eerily redolent of books like Animal Farm or, even more so, Lord of the Flies. Finally, there is also that silent warning layer that screams how difficult (if not impossible) it is to pull out the deeply rooted traditions, prejudices, conventions, and preconceptions that are littered throughout our society. It shows how, despite being pestilential to our very existence, it is extremely difficult to change how we think and feel once we have an idea in our head and are willing to fight for it.
There are only a couple of small things that I disliked about this book. The first has to deal with the day-to-day lives of these kids. The massive amount of time that these kids spend playing this game and the lack of consequences for certain things that happen in this book is potentially unrealistic. The last item, and what I disliked the most, was a part of the ending. The ending came at a logical time and everything that needed to be discussed was said, but it simply feels like something was missing. Perhaps an additional section is necessary to outline what happened after the conclusion of Chapter 21. That being said, I really don’t think that these issues significantly detract from the overall enjoyment of this book
Without any reluctance whatsoever, I give this book 4 out of 4 stars. John Collings has produced an expertly and very intelligently written book that can easily act as a cornerstone of literature to be taught in schools alongside some of the classics. It not only tells a fun story, but also throws open the blinds to the dark and littered landscape of humanity’s collective psyche. I fully recommend this book to anyone that is interested in reading stories that are simple at first glance, but ripe with allegorical undertones. If you aren’t a fan of books that try to tell a story in the sub-text as well as what is actually written, this likely isn’t for you.
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