Mad Boy

Mad Boy Book Cover Mad Boy
Nick Arvin
Europa Editions
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Henry Phipps is just a boy, no matter how much offense he takes when it’s pointed out to him. It’s easy to forget his youth, considering the immense burdens he is forced to bear. Only, every now and again he’ll react with nervousness and a reckless energy that will remind you: he’ll simply run out of a conversation and into the woods, he sometimes cries.

Henry is trying to get to Baltimore, where his father is being kept in debtor’s prison, and where his older brother Franklin is due to be executed by the firing line for defection from the American army. This might be a pretty straightforward mission under normal circumstances, but there is much with which Henry must contend: he is convinced, beyond all reason, that he ought to carry his mother with him. He has a penchant for turning even allies against him. There’s a war going on.

Indeed, it is tough to know when the War of 1812 is following Henry or when he is following the war. If he is going to succeed in freeing his father, he will, after all, somehow need to raise some 900 dollars, an impossible sum. But, “war is like a rich man dancing with a hole in his pocket,” Henry repeats.

Surprisingly, things don’t turn out as easy as that. Henry does meet quite a few people in his travels, and many of them do have ideas on how it is he’ll be able to raise some capital. These notions vary in practicality similarly to how the thinkers behind them vary in circumstance and morality. But, these encounters do provide the narrative with tension and propulsion. This book is a page-turner.

It is the absurdity that gives this book its ample charm, on the other hand. In the first ten pages alone a standoff is broken by a redcoat falling on his face, a dead woman finds her voice, and a cow falls through a roof. But, these mad-cap happenstances do not by any means detract from either the realism or the effectiveness of the narrative. I found it was the opposite, in fact: it was the fantastic quirks of these characters that made them endearing, just as it was the caprice of the fortunes of war that made the surroundings so dangerous.

war is like a rich man dancing with a hole in his pocket

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It was in turns rollicking, hilarious, and emotionally affecting. Henry is a fine companion through the New England territory, and what is left of his family is the type you are rooting for, despite their flaws. Surely, as the Phippses keep telling themselves, their luck must turn.

Rupert McNally
Rupert is a fan of fabulation in the fiction he reads. He mostly reads classics, but also enjoys science-fiction, and a good adventure story. On the non-fiction side he enjoys books on politics, language, and English history.