James Norcliffe

Allen and Unwin (2009)

ISBN: 9781742371160

Reviewed by George Ivanoff, March 2010

Confined to the Great House along with other unwanted children, Michael longs for freedom. One day, an enigmatic stranger calling himself the loblolly boy offers him a chance for escape. The loblolly boy says he can teach Michael to fly, so that he can get over the wall that surrounds the Great House. But things don’t turn out quite like Michael expects. In order to fly, he needs to change places with the loblolly boy — in fact, he must become the loblolly boy. And at first he loves it — the exhilaration of flight, the freedom to go anywhere he wants and the ability to go unseen by all but a few ‘sensitives’. But he soon realises that there are disadvantages, not the least of which is an obsessive collector who wants to add a loblolly boy to his collection. It’s not long before the new loblolly boy is longing to get his old life back. The problem is how to do it.

The Loblolly Boy by James Norcliffe is an entrancing, exciting, unexpected read — a kids’ book that really does have the potential for much wider appeal. Although set in the modern world, it has a wondrous, magical fairy-tale ambience. And even though the story is quite simple, I never quite knew where it was going or how it would be resolved.

I love the fact that the author doesn’t over-explain things. He’s even content to leave some things completely unexplained, such as the origin of the loblolly boy and the powers of the mystical telescope. Rather than being irritating, this adds to the magical quality. I never once thought to myself, “why didn’t he explain such-and-such?” The unexplained is just as important to the feel of the book as the things that are explained.

I must say that I am curious as to why the author chose the term “loblolly boy”. Perhaps there is a subtle meaning that I’m missing. As far as I know, “loblolly boy” is an old-fashioned term for the assistant to a ship’s surgeon, which seems to have no connection with the novel. But this in no way detracts from the story.

This novel is definitely worth a read. I’d rate it as one of my favourite books of 2009.