________________ CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 4. . . .September 25, 2009


Hamish X Goes to Providence, Rhode Island.

Seán Cullen.
Toronto, ON: Puffin Canada, 2008.
330 pp., hardcover, $18.00.
ISBN 978-0-670-06854-8.

Grades 5-8 / Ages 10-13.

Review by Huai-Yang Lim.

*** /4



“Stay where you are,” a deep voice ordered. Hamish X tensed to spring at the figure but heard the click of a rifle safety being released behind him. Suddenly the oasis was full of robed figures, their faces hidden behind scarves that wound around their throats, covering their faces save for their eyes, then continued on to become a headdress. The figures seemed to coalesce out of the sand and darkness into actual human beings. In their hands they held heavy automatic rifles. The rifles looked lethal, and all of them were trained on the three children.

“We mean no harm!” Hamish X said clearly, raising his hands so that the strangers could see he held no weapon. Taking his lead, Maggie and Thomas did the same. One of the robed men came forward, walking across the sand until he stood directly in front of the children.

“Good evening,” he said in English. “Would you mind telling me who you are and what you are doing at the oasis of Khar-el-Salaam? Please be quick about it as I do not know how long I can restrain my brethren from shooting you.” His English was perfect, although accented. His eyes were pale blue, but the skin of his hands and face was dark from exposure to the desert sun. “Speak or you will be food for the vultures!”

Cullen’s Hamish X Goes to Providence, Rhode Island is the third book in a trilogy that began with Hamish X and the Cheese Pirates and was continued in Hamish X Goes to Hollow Mountain. Continuing the first two books’ adventures, Hamish X and his friends, Mimi and Parveen, travel their separate ways through different places, such as the Sahara Desert and the underwater world of Atlantis, after which the three of them converge at Providence, Rhode Island and engage in a final, climactic battle with the Grey Agents of the Orphan Disposal Agency (ODA). Although the conclusion of this trilogy is perhaps predictable, insofar as its narrative trajectory is a rendition of the quest narrative and the battle between good and evil, the progression towards the its resolution is an engaging read. Cullen hooks his readers with tantalizing questions and narrative cliffhangers that continue to the book’s conclusion.

internal art      As a whole, the Hamish X trilogy provides an entertaining and satisfying story that creatively melds recognizable narrative elements and characteristics from our own world with Cullen’s imagined characters and settings. Through this, he gives an original twist to the quest narrative by focusing on an unlikely band of people who succeed in their adventure with the help of other unlikely allies, such as the Bedouin and the mythical Atlanteans. Cullen paces the narrative skillfully by striking a balance among descriptive passages that set the scene, revelatory and interactive moments among characters, and action-oriented scenes that create suspense and excitement. However, the overall thrust of this book is more plot-oriented as it aims to complete the trilogy.

     The three main characters, Hamish X, Mimi, and Parveen, continue their adventures in this novel. A key distinction between this novel and its predecessors is Cullen’s sustained use of three third-person narrative viewpoints—Hamish X, Mimi, and Parveen—for a significant part of the story. In part, this is necessary because each of these characters has separate adventures in a different location, although they all eventually meet up at Rhode Island. However, these three narrative viewpoints allow Cullen to create a more elaborate plot because he can introduce characters within the different settings that each character encounters. In addition, Cullen increases the story’s complexity by revealing these characters’ thoughts about their predicaments through which readers will get a more nuanced understanding of the characters and feel more sympathy for their plights.

     Like the other novels in the Hamish X trilogy, this novel’s humour depends on a reader’s prior knowledge of certain facts, values, or narrative conventions. For example, the narrator pokes fun at things such at the Surgeon General’s warnings by mentioning that sudden movement is the number-one cause of death for people with sharp objects against their throats. Once again, the irreverent footnotes and self-reflexive commentaries by the omniscient narrator, which also appear in this story, draw attention to the constructed nature of the narrative and question its factuality. Readers are reminded that they are reading a story told from the viewpoint of a narrator who appears well-read (though faultily so) and also grumpy or snippy at a few points, where the narrator jibes readers who are too lazy to have read the previous two books of the series before beginning this one. Humour is further elicited through the narrator’s insertion of irrelevant comments that have nothing to do with the actual story, but rather with external circumstances pertaining to its creation. For example, the narrator mentioned at the beginning of this novel that he went on sabbatical since the last time he narrated in Hamish X and the Hollow Mountain. Later, he comments that the novel would probably have a different title to attract potential readers if its target audience consisted of whales rather than humans.

     Readers will appreciate the word play that arises from the narrator’s etymological discussion of words as well as the names that Cullen has given to specific characters, places, and objects. For example, the narrator discusses the origin of the word “salubrious” and mentions that this word is not to be mistaken for the baseball player “Sal Ubrious” (p. 213). The names of specific characters and places are evocative of the quirky humour in some British children’s novels,in which these names refer literally, and in an obvious fashion, to a particular feature of the character or place. For example, there is a character named Captain Ironbuttocks who has imprisoned children aboard his ship Christmas is Cancelled, a Lucky Thirteen convenience store on Rhode Island, and Grey Agents with names associated with junk food such as Mr. Candy, Mr. Sweet, Miss Cake, and Mr. Crisp. Captain Ironbuttocks has this name because he literally has buttocks made of iron, a fact which the narrator mentions in a humourous footnote.

     In contrast to this novel, the second book in this series focused more on the character development, specifically in relation to Hamish X’s backstory and psyche, as well as the background details of the world that he inhabits. The present novel does include a number of revelatory descriptive passages that contribute to the complexity of Hamish X’s and other people’s characterization as well as the world that they inhabit. For example, readers will hear about the history of Atlantis, the origins of the Orphan Disposal Agency (ODA) and its Grey Agents, and the shrouded past of Hamish X that is finally revealed. However, the more plot-driven thrust of this book makes it more similar to Hamish X and the Cheese Pirates, except that its darker tone is more reminiscent of the second book in this trilogy. Considering the three books as a whole, the lighter tone is most prominent in the first book and the tone is progressively more serious from the first to the second and, finally, the third book. Even though villains die in all three novels, the first book’s straightforward and inherently humourous plot, which focuses on Viggo’s cheese factory and the cheese pirates, makes it the most light-hearted of the trilogy. In contrast, the third book continues with the narrative threads established in the first two novels and focuses more on the eventual confrontation with the Orphan Disposal Agency and its sinister plans for the Earth.

     Therefore, even though Cullen may want readers to not take this book too seriously, the novel’s plot development does not lend itself fully to humourous diversions. Indeed, the serious tone of specific scenes seems to jar with the humour at a few points. In part, this is unavoidable because of the events that will occur in Mimi’s and Parveen’s search for Hamish X, Hamish X’s own journey to uncover his mysterious past, and their final confrontation with the ODA’s Grey Agents. While readers will appreciate the humour, the nature of this narrative will also cause readers to care about the characters and the serious, life-threatening obstacles that they encounter along the way to the ODA Headquarters. As a result, the book’s humour, in a sense, distracts from the readers’ enjoyment of the serious aspects of the narrative, even though it succeeds in itself. For example, the narrator’s self-reflexive comments succeed in drawing the readers’ attention to the text as well as their own position as unknowledgeable or fallible people, but this undermines the illusory transparency of narrative that is necessary for readers to immerse themselves in the story. Some readers may skip the footnotes after a certain point in the story, such as in Part III, because they are more interested in finding out what will happen next. In this regard, one might argue that this reaction from readers would exemplify the novel’s failure to fully engage readers, such that they would feel compelled to read the footnotes. On the other hand, it can also be argued that readers do not need to read the footnotes along with the main text during their first reading of the novel and that they can return to them in a second reading. Regardless, the footnotes are still entertaining supplements to the main narrative.

     One potential problem in a series is that its impact may diminish in the later books of that series, particularly when it consists of several novels because the material may not seem as original in the later books. Readers who have followed the Hamish X trilogy will appreciate many of the third book’s humourous moments, but many of these exemplify the same devices of humour in the previous novels. As a result, some readers may feel that the humour is a bit repetitive, even though it is effective in and of itself. Similarly, the first two books in the series have already established the major plotlines, characters, and settings that are resolved in the third book. The first book had quirky elements that were central to the story in and of themselves, such as the Cheese Pirates, the sensational stories of Hamish X’s escapes and battles with villains, and Viggo Schmatz’s Windcity Orphanage and Cheese Factory. Even though it is part of a trilogy, the first novel can stand on its own, much more so than the other two novels, because a number of its major events were resolved within the same book, rather than established as continuous narrative threads to be dealt with in the next two books. For example, this would include Hamish X’s experiences with the Cheese Factory and the Cheese Pirates, which are only background details in the third book. As a result, the first novel has a certain cohesiveness and freshness that is less prominent in the other two novels. The third book does introduce new elements, such as the lost city of Atlantis, Bedouins, and the ODA headquarters in Providence, Rhode Island. However, all of these contribute to the progression and resolution of the larger narrative arc that revolves around Hamish X and his friends.

     Like the previous two Hamish X novels that Johann Wessels has illustrated, his black and white illustrations complement this story effectively by contributing to the current scene’s mood and highlighting tense, confrontational moments such as the revelation of Mrs. Guardian’s true hideous identity and the desert people’s aiming of their guns at Hamish X and his companions. In other instances, his illustrations help readers to visualize the setting, such as the ancient world of Atlantis and the seemingly innocuous exterior of the ODA Headquarters.

     This book’s language level is similar to the other two books in this series, such that readers under the age of eleven will find some words to be unfamiliar. The book still contains the same sense of fun and parody that has characterized the first two books, but its treatment of particular themes will make it more suitable for slightly older readers. This situation is much like that of the Harry Potter series in which the later books are more suitable for older readers because of their increasingly complex and darker storylines. For example, violence and death do appear in all three Hamish X books because of the nature of the story—a battle between good and evil—but they are more significant components of the story as it progresses from the first to the third book. In the second book, readers got glimpses of Hamish X’s traumatic past and the evil nature of the Grey Agents, both of which were explored further in the third book. The threat and actual occurrence of both violence and death are more extensive in this last novel when Hamish X and his friends battle the villains of the Orphan Disposal Agency, although these descriptive moments are toned down because of the book’s potential readership.

     Overall, Hamish X Goes to Providence, Rhode Island will be most enjoyed by readers who have followed Hamish X’s adventures in the first two books of this trilogy. As this is the final part of the trilogy, it is necessary to start with the first book. This third novel cannot stand on its own since it includes references to events and characters in the previous two books that will not make sense to new readers. Despite the potential problems that arise by virtue of its being the third book, this novel does give readers an exciting plot and satisfying resolution.


Huai-Yang Lim has completed a degree in Library and Information Studies at the University of Alberta and currently works as a research specialist. He enjoys reading, reviewing, and writing children’s literature in his spare time.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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