CM . . .
. Volume XII Number 20 . . . .June 9, 2006
Hamish X and the Cheese Pirates.
Seán Cullen. Illustrated by Johann Wessels.
Toronto, ON: Puffin Canada, 2006.
293 pp., cloth, $18.00.
Grades 5-8 / Ages 10-13.
Review by Huai-Yang Lim.
Instantly the boy looked up. For a moment his eyes met Mrs. Francis’s, and she almost gasped. They were beautiful, a most extraordinary colour: pale gold rather than brown. And somehow, as they flicked away from her, she saw a strange reflective flash like a cat’s eye when a headlight catches it in darkness.
“Where am I?” The boy looked around him in confusion. His eyes fixed on Viggo. “Who are you?”
Viggo felt compelled to answer. “I’m Viggo Schamtz.”
The boy grinned, showing all his teeth in a predatory glint that made Viggo's stomach lurch. “The pleasures all yours, Viggo. I’m Hamish X!”
Viggo looked into those strange golden eyes and felt vaguely uncomfortable. Covering his discomfort with disdain, he curled his lip into a sneer. “Well, what an honour,” he said coldly. “The infamous Hamish X: scourge of orphanages the world over. In the flesh.”
“What a treat for you, sir!” Hamish X smiled, gazing around the room as if taking inventory. “Cheerful place you¹ve got here, Viggo! Pity I won¹t be staying long.” Hamish X looked down at his feet, lifting one boot and then the other. He smiled again.
The use of humour is prevalent in many children's and young adult stories, with its roots in classics such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and its appearance in contemporary novels such as Gordon Korman’s recent Son of the Mob. Sean Cullen makes his first foray into this field with Hamish X and the Cheese Pirates, a hilarious and original story that revolves around cheese factories and cheese pirates. Incorporating humour through aspects such as his story’s characterization, narration, and language, Cullen creates an engaging, well-paced narrative with distinctive characters and settings that will keep readers wondering what will happen next.
As a humourous rendition of the classic quest narrative, the story portrays an epic adventure with three unlikely kids who trek across the Arctic and Snow Monkey Island to rescue orphans from the Cheese Pirates. Under the oppressive rule of Viggo Schmatz and his staff at the Windcity Orphanage and Cheese Factory, orphaned children donated from the Orphan Disposal Agency toil for long hours to manufacture the famed Caribou Blue cheese which is known to induce hallucinations, paralysis, and death when taken in larger doses. However, with the arrival of Hamish X, a young orphan of unknown age and origins, things change. With Parveen and Mimi, Hamish X plots his escape from the orphanage, only to have his plans change when the Cheese Pirates invade Viggo’s Cheese Factory and kidnap the children who work there. Together, the three of them set out to rescue the children and, along the way, they encounter various obstacles as well as make unexpected friends.
Cullen does well in moving the action along. With the plot’s movement from one crisis, problem, and cliffhanger to the next, readers will root for them to succeed. The final battle scene, a common feature of narratives of good versus evil, is creative and fits well with the book’s focus on cheese.
Readers will recognize the character types that are portrayed through the three main characters: Hamish X, a kid with a mysterious past and an uncertain mission; Mimi, a feisty girl with a good heart underneath her apparently rough demeanor; and Parveen, an intelligent and loyal friend. Yet, Cullen does not represent these three characters simplistically as he portrays them in a sufficiently complex way, such that readers will be able to identify with different aspects of these characters’ personalities and qualities. However, Cullen does play upon and exaggerate specific aspects of his other characters for humourous effect, such as his description of Cheesebeard’s appearance.
Like his characterization, Cullen creatively incorporates recognizable narrative forms into his story so that they are fresh as well as humourous for his readers who will recognize these narrative forms from other stories that they may have read. For example, the story’s main characters relate personal histories that provide a twist on the tale of tragic character or fallen character. Parveen and Mimi each have their own tragic tales of becoming orphaned. Mr. Kipling personifies a person who has reluctantly turned from serving good to serving evil, due to unexpected circumstances, but who later undergoes a redemptive transformation. Similarly, Cullen creates a romantic subplot that focuses on two characters, Mr. Kipling and Mrs. Francis, but it is not simply a rehash of a familiar theme as the romance is unconventional and unexpected.
Although it follows a linear narrative, Cullen’s novel also includes self-reflexive elements and deliberate and overt interruptions from the story’s narrator who inserts footnotes as comical explanations throughout the novel. Indeed, the footnotes are sometimes more entertaining than the actual story, itself, which also serves to comment indirectly on the kinds of information that people may enjoy or find interesting. Cullen also uses his story’s narrator to provide an entertaining self-reflexive component that contributes to the story’s humour. The novel is divided into three main parts, with the narrator’s comical interludes appearing before each part begins. While these interludes do not actually contribute to the story’s main plot, they will cause readers to question how a story is told: what is exaggerated and what is real?
Besides these self-reflexive aspects, readers will also appreciate the humour that arises from his story’s language. An important element of humour in children’s and young adult novels is that they should appeal to their sense of fun. Cullen does this through his use of word play and parodic representations of familiar elements from our own world, both of which have been central to the humour in many children’s stories such as Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth. Melding fact with fiction, Cullen creates fictitious histories and anecdotes associated with the places, people, objects, and other terminology that he mentions throughout the novel. Along the way, Cullen uses word play to create playful names. Some of these are fictitious, such as the history behind Windcity and the Beardlords of Denmark, whereas others refer to real things like the Amundsen Gulf, stiletto, and glowing fungi. There are echoes of familiar concepts, such as the World Health Organization in the fictitious World Dairy Organization that is mentioned in the novel. Similarly, readers will recognize that the character Cheesebeard’s reference to “Julius Cheeser” refers to the actual historical figure Julius Caesar.
Some of the language, particularly in the story’s footnotes, may be a bit advanced for younger readers. However, the novel’s language is generally suitable for readers ages ten and up. Younger and older readers alike will easily understand and enjoy the humour that arises from the novel’s plot and characterization. Its only shortcoming is that some of its humour may be lost upon younger readers because they may lack sufficient knowledge to fully understand what Cullen is parodying from our own world as well as his linguistically based humour.
There are some black and white illustrations throughout the novel, done by Johann Wessels, that complement the story well by portraying particular moments in the story’s plot as well as by contributing to Cullen’s characterizations. For example, one of Wessels’ illustrations conveys a sinister impression of Mr. Candy and Mr. Sweet that complements how Cullen’s narrative represents these characters’ mysterious nature. Similarly, other illustrations convey characters’ aspects such as Mimi’s feistiness and Cheesebeard’s menacing appearance.
The story closes with an appropriately open-ended cliffhanger. Who is Hamish X and where did he come from, and what is the destiny that the mysterious agents, Mr. Candy and Mr. Sweet, appear to have in store for him? These are the questions that will linger after kids read the book and will surely be lingering still when they begin Cullen’s anticipated sequel. Readers can learn more about the sequel, and Sean Cullen, himself, by visiting his official website at http://www.seancullen.com.
Huai-Yang Lim is currently pursuing a degree in Library and Information Studies at the University of Alberta.
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