________________ CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 14 . . . . December 4, 2009


The Year of the Hangman.

Gary Blackwood.
New York, NY: Speak (Distributed in Canada by Penguin Group Canada), 2002.
261 pp., pbk., $8.99.
ISBN 0-14-240078-5.

Subject Headings:
United States-History-Revolution, 1775-1783-Juvenile fiction.
Spies-Juvenile fiction.

Grades 6-10 / Ages 11-15.

Review by Diana Lynn Wilkes.

***½ /4


"You look like a heap of offal," said the gruff voice. "Want a drink?"

Creighton tilted his head to take in a beefy, rough-looking man sitting on a bunk a few feet away. Though he looked more like a sheep farmer than a gentleman, he wore the uniform of a Marine guard lieutenant. The man poured an inch or so of amber liquid from a flask. "Drink?" he repeated, enunciating clearly and indicating the glass in his hand, as though he were speaking to someone foreign or perhaps feebleminded.

Creighton nodded, very carefully lest his head fall off. He sat up again, more slowly this time. The room seemed to be swaying around him. It took him a moment to realize that he wasn't imagining it; the ship was rocking rhythmically. He glanced out the small window next to him and saw nothing but water. Alarmed, he sprang to his feet, hit his head on the low ceiling, and abruptly sat down again.

"You may as well save your strength," said the lieutenant. "You'll not be getting off this ship now—not until we reach the Colonies."

"The Colonies?" Creighton echoed in dismay; the cloth gag reduced the words to incoherent grunts.

Historical fiction is a genre that is not currently in vogue for young people. However, novels such as this one will likely fill the void for those who are eager for fresh adventures in a former time and for those who have yet to discover this compelling genre. Gary Blackwood's writing style will be appreciated for its fast paced plot and varied characters which transport the reader into a time period while unfamiliar to most, the situations can be appreciated by all. Fans of the True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi will find this novel comparable.

     Creighton, at the centre of the novel, is introduced as an arrogant and spoiled young "gentleman" who bothered little with schooling or family responsibilities. Instead he "ran wild" and gambled, smoked and drank among like-minded rascals, causing his widowed mother no end of grief. Living in England in 1777, he and his friends had heard much of the unrest in America where his father, "a career soldier," had gone to "help keep the rebels in hand" in their bid to resist British rule in the colonies. This year, in particular, was called "the year of the hangman" because the three sevens reminded one of three hangmen gallows, and hanging was the fate of many captured rebels.

     After a typical night of recklessness, Creighton is kidnaped and taken aboard a ship heading to sea. As Creighton comes to, he pieces together the surprising circumstances. On his mother's request, he is to be delivered to her brother, Colonel Gower, in the Colonies where she hopes he might be under better control. With haughty arrogance, Creighton protests his treatment on board and during his initial arrival in the New World.

     Despite his intention to be sent right back to England, Creighton is instead abandoned by his uncle. He begrudgingly settles into a life in his new home—at least temporarily. He finds himself in the home and care of none other than Dr. Benjamin Franklin with friends, Peter and Sophie. He learns the printing trade and much about the conflict between the British and the Americans. Creighton initially sides with the British and even sends intelligence that he discovers until he begins to sympathize more with the Americans' cause. Uncovering the truth about his father, as well as the true nature of his uncle, further complicate the situation. He must decide where his true loyalties lie. Through many adventures and suspenseful situations, Creighton becomes a more critical thinker, more compassionate and responsible. In short, he grows up.

     The Year of the Hangman is well written and presents this era with authenticity, if not absolute fact (author's notes at end of book beg leniency for some artistic license). If the book can be faulted at all, it may be in its rather slow start. For such an action-packed story, it would be a better hook to begin with the kidnaping or some other gripping event rather than a warning from his mother and an explanation of the game of hangman. The other point is that, with only a briefly mentioned mother and the delightful character of Sophie, his new friend in America, there are no other women characters among many men. This novel is obviously focused on appealing to male readers, but it would not have changed much to have more female characters or references introduced. Still, girls will more willingly read about boy characters than the reverse so this novel will be appreciated by both gender readers.


Diana Lynn Wilkes has taught grades K to 7 and visual arts for grades 8 - 10. She holds a B.Ed from Simon Fraser University and a Master of Arts degree in Children's Literature from the University of British Columbia. She writes and paints from her homes in Surrey, BC, and Nelson, New Zealand.

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

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