In today’s par­lance, Noah Bar­ley­water Runs Away, John Boyne’s return to children’s lit­er­ature, is a Pinocchio knockoff with a delightful, yet serious, 21st century tone. If you think that’s a bit strong, how about, Boyne has taken fanfic to a new lit­erary high, which I suspect would both amuse and gladden Signore Collodi.

As I think about Boyne’s book, I can almost feel Collodi looking over my shoulder. It’s a fun sce­nario to imagine. What isn’t as much fun is thinking that Pinocchio himself is any­where near me while I try to figure out what to say. For those of you who have actually read Pinocchio (the Disney movie doesn’t count) you may remember what a naughty little mar­i­onette boy he was. He was a brat, although Collodi did remind us that deep in his little wooden heart he had strong, good feelings, he meant well. His coun­terpart in Boyn’s tale, Noah Bar­ley­water, is a much more real and sym­pa­thetic char­acter. Well, of course, you say, Noah was a real boy, never a puppet. And therein is the genius of John Boyne.

Pinocchio was written as the embod­iment of every 19th century admon­ishment ever uttered to young boys. Go to school and study hard; do not lie; keep your promises; listen to your elders; respect others; work hard to earn the things you want, good deeds should be repaid, the list goes on. It takes poor Pinocchio an entire book of dis­as­trous events to learn how much he loves his father, and it is that real­ization that trans­forms him into a real boy, no longer a puppet

Noah Bar­ley­water is already a real boy. A sweet kid of eight, he has all the inno­cence and deter­mi­nation nec­essary to run away from home. Boyne wastes no time in devel­oping a fan­tas­tical escape route: vil­lages with trees that speak and move, a news­paper that prints the day’s news before it happens. The reader slips pre­car­i­ously close to Alice’s rabbit hole before little Noah makes it past the second village. Noah is running away for the same reasons that most people run away, no matter what their age: there is some­thing that he is afraid to face, and that fear lives in the home he flees.

When Noah Bar­ley­water reaches the third village and a mis­shapen toy store owned by an ancient wood­carver, the story takes off and the real enchantment begins. The wood­carver, whose name we do not know until the end of the story, is the perfect host and tells Noah about his beloved father who carved the hun­dreds of puppets that hang throughout the toy store. Like his own loving father, the old man takes Noah in, feeds him and explains his improbable sur­roundings as if doors that move to accom­modate a blank wall, clocks that fly, a tree that daily regrows its branches taken for carving, and oranges that speak before being eaten are not sin­gular, but glo­ri­ously normal.

The old man’s own story of running away (he becomes an Olympic runner) is as inex­tri­cably tangled in Noah’s story as the strings of his father’s puppets. This tale of adventure is exactly what Noah thinks he wants. But the woodcarver’s youthful adven­tures come at a ter­rible price, which he does not realize until he finally ful­fills his promise to his father and returns home. And Noah, with loving encour­agement from the wizened old man, finally tells his own story. As in all good fables, the reader knows what must happen long before the boy understands.

In the end, Noah’s adventure is to return home to his family, to face his fear and to even­tually grow up to become a wood­carver himself. John Boyne’s tale has lov­ingly bor­rowed magical wood, donkeys, crickets, snails, and a few less rec­og­nized char­acters, like the name of a famous runner, Capaldi, all the nec­essary ingre­dients for a newly remem­bered, but very old tale. Signore Collodi is in fine company.

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