Is there any bigger trope in the fictional canon than 'the year/summer/semester that changed my life'? It covers a variety of story possibilities and pops up everywhere you look. Adults are certainly not immune, but I do think it occurs more often in children’s and young adult literature, probably because these times that change our lives tend to happen when we’re young. It may be a cliché, but when handled correctly, it can be the perfect beginning for a lovely story.
“…doesn’t everyone remember everything about their last summer in elementary school?” our narrator Julie asks at the beginning of Frank Cottrell Boyce’s The Unforgotten Coat. The summer in question is changed for Julie by the arrival of two brothers to her school, Chingis and Nergui, from Mongolia. Chingis is in her class and quickly adopts Julie to be his “Good Guide”, a role that Julie takes seriously. The brothers, you see, are being chased by a demon, one that wants to make Nergui disappear. As good guide, Julie teaches the brothers about the playground and about football, learns all she can about Mongolia, and tries desperately to get herself invited over, to no avail. The boys in turn give Julie a new kind of meaning and purpose. This slim novel culminates in a skipping-school-off –the-road-trip where Julie learns a little more about the brothers and ends up learning the truth behind the demon and from what they were really running. Thanks to time, technology and a little growing up, our story has a happy ending, but one that is gained through a great price.
If I were to pair this novel with another 2011 release, I’d put it with National Book Award winner, Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai. Together they give two different experiences of immigration, but both have a sense of longing for place and time. For Boyce, the longing comes from Julie, who wants to know about the brothers’ home in Mongolia, and secretly dreams of becoming a Mongolian princess. There is also a feeling of nostalgia produced as the adult Julie tells her story of the end of her primary school days. Boyce captures that feeling perfectly, and doesn’t beat you over the head with it. The characters are all drawn with fine strokes, giving nuance even to the teacher, Mrs. Spendlove. Polaroid photographs are scattered throughout the text, and give poignancy to the story. The image of the title coat is especially memorable.
This is the first of Boyce’s novels for young people I’ve read, but I’m a big fan of screenwriting career. Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story and Millions are among my favorites (why I’ve never picked up Millions the novel is beyond me. Chalk it up to ‘too little time’). I know now I’ll have to pay more attention to his prose. What he accomplishes in only 93 pages with The Unforgotten Coat is remarkable. It’s a quick read, but one more than worth your time.
Note: The afterword is nearly as interesting as the story itself, detailing how Boyce got the idea for The Unforgotten Coat on a school visit. Be sure not to miss it.
The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce