Review: The Whipping Boy

Here’s a question: Which would you rather be – a rat-catcher or a whipping boy? On the one hand, rat-catchers catch rats. On the other, whipping boys get whipped. A lot.

At least they do when the prince is known throughout the kingdom as Prince Brat. And Jemmy, an orphan plucked from the streets to be His Highness’s whipping boy, knows which he prefers. If he had a choice, he’d exchange his silk and velvet for rags and be back in the sewers in a half-blink of an eye.

But he doesn’t have a choice. And then, one night, Prince Brat embarks on his greatest piece of mischief yet – running away.

The Whipping Boy, written by Sid Fleischman, is a classic of children’s literature. It’s a slim book – less than one hundred pages, with a large type and generous margins. The writing is direct, in both style and substance. The setting-up takes two chapters, a total of five pages – for unlike the book, we are not counting illustrations.

Brief the author may be, but his strokes are sure and bold. Characters leap brightly from the pages, knowable and entirely their own. Every once in a while, Sid Fleischman turns fine, evocative phrases in his short sentences – “a thoroughbred of the streets”, “fuming like a stovepipe”, the moon gazing “down like an evil eye”.

Places, too, are drawn out in a few vivid words – the great sewers, the dark, garlicky hut, the mist-filled forest (“Forests is creepy things,” the whipping boy says. “Gimme cobbled streets any time.”). The book is in written in that way: skilled, pleasing, and simple.

The king is unnamed, the kingdom and the city nameless, and the time is undefined. Details suggest the eighteenth century – but what does it matter? The Whipping Boy is, in this, like a fairy tale, and it breathes free of any place on a map or time in a chronology.

There is an abiding simplicity in The Whipping Boy. And simplicity, when done by a master, can be a marvelous thing. This story runs and dodges, treating us to adventure and comedy, and at its heart it is a sympathetic view of two boys – both, in their way, deprived. The Whipping Boy is a children’s book, but like all truly excellent works for children, it can be enjoyed by adults, too. No one is too old for the humor of this book, or the adventure, or the humanity.

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