The year is 1980. Leon is nine years old when we meet him and has a new baby brother, Jake. He lives with his mum Carol in a maisonette but his dad is absent, having absconded prior to a court date. Jake has a different dad but he is not interested in either Carol or his son. Quite quickly it becomes apparent that Leon is taking on a lot more responsibility than a boy his age should. He learns to care for Jake, changing his nappies and making his bottles, basically doing all the stuff his mum should be doing. Carol is ill, suffering from depression, and she is in no fit state to care for either boy. When food and nappies run out, Leon turns to a friendly neighbour and the boys are taken into care.
This next bit is where you want the family size Kleenex on hand. It’s on the back of the book so not a spoiler to say that the two brothers get split up. This is where I think de Waal excels, showing the difficulties on both sides when these circumstances arise. Knowing that there is no way that Carol can care for her sons, social services choose to let Jake be adopted. A white baby is always going to be a more attractive proposition than a mixed race nine year old. At least Leon has his foster mum Maureen, loving and extremely experienced in dealing with such difficult situations.
Although there is no father in his life, Leon does find male role models when he is out exploring on his bike and finds the allotments not far from home. This small community becomes a sanctuary, with two surrogate fathers in Tufty and Mr Devlin, the often clashing proprietors of neighbouring plots. Through Tufty, Leon begins to discover what it means to be black and male, watching local police intimidate his friend in public without fear of reprisal. Leon is too young to face many issues of race and so it was clever to use Tufty’s experiences to show these.
There is no getting cosy with this story. Time and again as Leon begins to trust the rug seems to be pulled from under his feet. There is always a safety net though, which I appreciated. Children in care is an emotive issue and this always felt real and not exploitive in any way. Rather than being an upsetting read, this book gives you faith in the great number of people out there who foster and support children in vulnerable situations. As a recipient of such care myself, albeit at Jake’s age and so before I can remember, this story is close to my heart and I felt in safe hands.