Corenwald is an island nation unlike any hitherto imagined, its inhabitants a diverse mix of frontier villagers, vaudevillian hucksters, cattle drivers, sailors, pirates, and Grady. The protagonist in Jonathan Rogers’s latest young adult novel, The Charlatan’s Boy, Grady is twelve years old, an orphan who doesn’t “have any idea who I was or where I come from.” He doesn’t even have a last name. For much of his life, Grady has traveled from village to village, “from one end of Corenwald to the other,” alongside “full-bloomed scoundrel” Floyd Wendellson. Together they put on a circus-freak-show performance, with Floyd as the showman ringmaster and Grady “The Wild Man of the Feechiefen Swamp.” Dressed in “muskrat and possum hides,” his face covered in mud, Grady pretends to be one of the Feechiefolk, a mythical group of people who live in the swampy “black waters of the Feechiefen.”
Rogers is originally from Georgia, but he earned his doctorate in seventeenth-century English literature from Vanderbilt University, and he and his family still live in Nashville. In addition to The Charlatan’s Boy, he’s the author of the Wilderking Trilogy: The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking. It’s in this book that Rogers first introduced his readers to Corenwald.
In telling the story of Grady, Rogers pulls from the vernacular tradition, and The Charlatan’s Boy feels like a well-loved tall tale. There’s a touch of fantasy, but it’s comfortably incorporated in the story as a whole. The storytelling itself takes its time, never letting the conflict of plot become a driving bullet through the story. The narrative meanderings are the natural result of characters who are always finding themselves in one fix or another.
Grady is an innocent set smack in the middle of rogues and hucksters. He and Floyd have been a lot of things over the years—phrenologists, turkey dancers, sellers of liver pads and Doctor Floyd’s Panther Paste and Cure-All. Grady doesn’t like tricking people out of their money, but pretending to be a terrifyingly wild he-Feechie has been the one hoax that’s “felt truer” than anything else. When he and Floyd are forced to find a new scam, Grady is at a loss: “For half my life that’s who I thought I was,” he says.
It’s a crisis of identity, and, for Grady, the key is finding out once and for all the answers to his past. The only problem is that the “one man who might be able to tell me where I come from” is Floyd, and as Grady, like everyone else, already knows, he’s “a liar and a fraud.” When asked about how he found Grady, rarely has Floyd ever given the same answer twice. “One time he told me he found me squawling under a palmetto bush and took pity on me,” says Grady. “Another time he said he bought me from a circus man who was getting out of the business and selling off his animals. Said he mistook me for a monkey and the circus man was gone before he realized he was tricked.”
Short and wiry, Grady admits he does look “sort of monkeyish.” He has one blue eye and one green eye, and they’re both “closer together than most folks find pleasing.” His eyebrows run together, and his ears stick out from his head. When Floyd tells Grady the truth, Grady doesn’t doubt it: his mother gave him away because—yes, of course—he was “too ugly to keep.” It’s as sad an origins story as one is likely to hear, yet Grady’s matter-of-fact acceptance for his bless-his-heart looks is endearing. When Floyd bills him as the “Ugliest Boy in the World,” Grady says it “hurt my feelings a little,” although it also “feels good to know you’re the best in the world at something.”
Grady is a kind-hearted soul. “I think I’m an honest feller,” he says. “I want to do what’s right, but I ain’t had a lot of practice at it.” He knows there are answers to his questions out there somewhere. Every village he and Floyd travel to—every adventure and conundrum they face—is one more step in the journey. The Charlatan’s Boy tells the story of what Grady learns along the way, and, in the end, reveals how he finally becomes “the feller I wanted to be.”
Tagged: Children & YA