Boy on a Wire by Jon Doust

‘I know I have to go.  It’s a family tradition.’

Jack Muir, from a small town in Western Australia, is sent off to boarding school in the early 1960s.  He doesn’t want to go.  His older brother is already there: Jack has become used to being in his shadow.  But leaving home means leaving his mother, of having to fit into a world where difference is not valued and where punishment can be brutal.  While I don’t have any personal experience of corporal punishment at school, I do remember ‘the cuts’ being administered to others at my government primary school in Tasmania.  Fear and pain are hardly great motivators for learning.  And in Jack’s boarding school, the boys also dole out punishment to each other. 

How will Jack survive?  Physically and emotionally?  

Jack is not always a likeable character: he has the arrogance of youth, and his wit is not always comfortable.  But he is also compassionate and tries to look out for some of the more vulnerable boys.

I read this book and wondered how many of the boys would survive their experiences.  I wondered, too, about what kind of adults and parents these boys would make.  Have we learned nothing since the 19th century? There’s little kindness shown to the boys in this book: even minor transgressions are punished; boys are expected to be competitive and tough.

‘There is a kind of freedom in not winning.’

I read this novel on the recommendation of a friend and will be looking to read the other two books in the series ‘One Boy’s Journey to Man’.  The journey is harrowing in parts, but the writing is superb, and I really want to read the next stage of Jack’s journey.  While I think that this novel is pitched at adults, many teenagers might take comfort from knowing that they are not alone navigating the challenging path from childhood.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith