The Changeling

The ChangelingI never thought I could find a book who could match my love for To Kill a Mockingbird, until I read The Changeling.

True, I work for the publisher, but this does not take away from the fact that The Changeling is one of the most amazing short novels ever. So I’m breaking my rule about not talking shop just so I can rave about this book.

I would encourage everyone to go out and buy this book, but I still have a work-personal life line I won’t cross, so get it out at your library, or request it on bookmooch, or RABCK on BookCrossing. I haven’t met a single person who’s read this book and not loved it.

The Changeling is set in 1950s Scotland, on the west coast. Glasgow teacher Charles Forbes is a slightly bumbling, overweight man who one might describe as a tree-huggin’ hippie or bleeding heart liberal in modern parlance. He called to mind, right away, the Modern Parents from Viz. He decides to invite a deprived 13-year old student named Tom Curdie on holiday to the fictional village of Towellan, a place he and his family have enjoyed year after year.

(It leads me to wonder if he’s the only one who thinks the whole family loves it.)

Spoilers below.

You know that things are going to go badly — pretty much from the beginning. Tom is a complex enigma, being kind to his brother and sister, and even a stray cat one minute, and breaking into his school and stealing money (as well as deliberately playing a prank as a fuck you to the teachers) the next.

The late Robin Jenkins, who penned this tale, was clearly a seriously talented man. I found myself as conflicted about how I felt about Tom as the Curdies did. I had no real opinion, then I thought he was bad to the core (and manipulative, too), then I felt sorry for him, and felt increasingly so, right up until the abrupt and shocking ending*.

I’m not going to say what that ending is, but you really feel for Tom as he struggles to stay ‘strong’ and ‘streetwise’ because he knows that after this holiday, the Forbes will go home to their nice house — consciences clear — and Tom has to return to Donaldson’s Court, the slum where his mother, her maimed lover, his brother, and half-sister live.

Boo Radley did not suffer in the same way!

The Changeling makes us think about charity, what is real charity, and what actually helps (rather than harms). On the surface, taking a poor child on vacation with you may seem like the nice thing to do, but on reflection (as everyone in the Forbes family save Charles and his young son Alistair seemed to sense before the holiday actually took place), is it the right thing? It makes us think about our prejudices and assumptions about people, because no one is ever exactly what they seem (a great example is Charles’ mother-in-law, Mrs. Storrocks, who is first exactly what she seems, then she isn’t, then she is again).

On the whole, I would say that The Changeling is one of those books that could change your life — if you’re still young enough to be impressionable, that is. It may be set (and was written) in the 1950s, but the themes of social bias and the questioning of our assumptions are just as relevant today.

* It made me reel, it gave me headspins. The ending is worth crying over.