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.