Book review: The Tolpuddle Boy

October 27, 2010 8:17 pm Published by Leave your thoughts

Without a knowledge of history we are like rudderless ships on the high seas.

Without knowing where we came from, how our culture and beliefs were formed, we also lack a compass for our future journey.

History is passed down from generation to generation, but if that communication conduit is broken or destroyed, our history becomes lost. Perhaps the most recent example of that phenomenon happening here was during the Thatcher era which saw the destruction of many traditional working class communities. That rich experience of trade union struggle, solidarity and the industrial skill base on which those communities were based was brutally shattered. What do youngsters today, now growing up in those shattered communities, know of their past? Very likely little political or social history or anything beyond ephemeral celebrity figures like Robbie Williams, Wayne Rooney or Russell Brand.

For trade unionists the story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs is engraved in their hearts as an inspiring tale of working people’s fight for the right to combine and demand justice. It is also a timely reminder of the vicious brutality of the ruling classes once they feel threatened. The lives of those brave pioneers of trade unionism are celebrated each year at the Tolpuddle Martyrs Memorial Day event. But how many of us know the details of the story – certainly few if any young people will know about it. It is therefore salutary that Alan Brown has rewritten the story for a younger readership.

We have too few books written for young people today that deal with our common history. Geoffrey Trease and Rosemary Sutcliffe were two of the best ones that I can recall, but where are their successors? In that sense, I feel reticent to criticise this book too severely.

However, I have to ask myself what will attract younger readers to it. I feel that Brown was undecided whether to write a personal story of the youngest of the martyrs – James Brine, who was only 21 when he was transported to Australia – or present a chronology of the events. Because of this, the book never really takes off and misses out on being the gripping narrative it could be. It is also somewhat patronising and unsubtly didactic. It is also unfortunate that a ‘Wages of Despair’table showing an average family’s weekly outgoings set against their meagre wages is mathematically erroneous.

The book could still be useful as source material for a history lesson, but hardly as a novel that will capture the imagination of young readers today.

“The Tolpuddle Boy – Transported to Hell and Back” by Alan James Brown is published by Five Leaves.


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This post was written by John Green

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