A comparative introduction to the stories by Ally Sherrick and Jess Butterworth
In this blog post I aim to compare two middle grade stories: Black Powder and Running on the Roof of the World. They are among my favourite reads of 2017. The settings are very different and there are some differences in writing style. But, both the main character go on a journey’s to help their families. A journey in which they discover things they didn’t know about themselves or their family and in which they have to use their wit’s and their courage to see them through. By looking at the the two stories I noticed some things which I may not have seen if I had looked at one story alone. I have found it interesting to identify some similarities between Ally Sherrick’s and Jess Butterworth’s stories. I hope you enjoy reading about them.
Introducing the Stories
Black Powder is set in 1605 in England. I immediately warmed to the main character Tom. His family were Catholic in a period of British history in which they were persecuted by the King for their religion. When his farther is caught helping a priest Tom’s world is turned upside down. His Dad is arrested and taken to London where he may be hanged. Tom becomes separated from his Mum and baby brother too. He sets out on the first part of his journey to seek help from an Uncle he has never met.
Running on the Roof of the World is set in modern day Tibet. The main character is Tash, whom I also immediately warmed to. She lives in a small village near the mountains, where the presence of the military is keenly felt. Near the start of the story she witnesses an incident, and shortly afterwards her village is put on curfew and her parents are taken away by soldiers. Tash decides she must journey over the mountains to ask the Dalai Lama’s help to free her parents. *
*The Dali Lama is the leader of Tibet who has been excited to India.
Something striking about the opening chapters of both stories is how effectively they convey gathering crowds, and the clever way the child in the story is both in and outside of the crowd. This helps to create the feeling that you are actually there and certainly helps to hook you.
I love the way that Ally Sherrick starts her story:
“The hangman stood hunched at the top of the wooden scaffold like a huge black crow. A mob of screaming gulls wheeled above him, but his eyes stayed fixed on the noose as it swayed to and fro in the cold sea breeze.”
“ Tom’s heart jolted. He didn’t want to watch a man die, but if he ran away now everyone would know he was a Catholic for sure…” (Black Powder: p1)
Straight away you have got a sense of atmosphere of anticipation, of something that is waiting to happen, and a clear warning from the very beginning that being a Catholic in these times is dangerous.
In the fist few chapters Jess Butterworth cleverly uses a series of rules that introduces the reader to the control soldiers have over individual lives. Then in chapter two Tash observes a gathering:
“But, today it’s different. Everyone is gathered in the middle pressed against each other. They face the same direction watching something. Silence ripples through the group there are no smiles.
I stand on the outer side where the crowd is thinner and scan faces checking for Mum and Dad.” (Running on the Roof of the World: p9)
What Tash witnessed was a man setting himself and the Tibetan flag on fire as a protest against military occupation. This set’s in motion a series of events that lead Tash to be on the run from the soldiers and to decide on an epic journey across the mountains.
A core part of both stories is the journeys they under take both physical and mental. The journeys are however very different in their setting. Tom’s is through mirky roads, back streets and tunnels first to get to his Uncle’s house and then to London. He has to constantly watch who he can trust. Whilst Tash’s journey is across the remote mountains from Tibet, and hopefully into India where the Dahli Lama is in exile. She travels with her best friend Sam and two Yak’s. Once into the mountains her challenge is one of extreme survival in remote landscapes as winter approaches.
Capturing the setting at the start of their journeys
The first part of Tom’s journey is across rural countryside from his home to a place called Cowdry where his uncle lives. As Tom arrives on the outskirts of Cowdry and looks for his Uncle’s house, you get a great sense of the power his Uncle has by the way the location of the house is described. There are also some hints that there may be some unsavoury characters lurking in the Shadows too. This ramps up the tension before Tom has even set food inside his Uncles house.
Tash and Sam’s first task is to get out of their village with two Yak’s called Eve and Bones before they are captured by the Soldiers, which is no easy.
“Hours go by and the sun shines from it’s highest point.
With each person we pass I grow in confidence
Until we seem them.” (Running on the Roof of the World: p86)
Surprise discoveries about their families
Near the beginnings of the stories both children discover something they didn’t know about their families and are given something to look after by their parents. Tom’s mum gives him a bible, which she said his Uncle gave her for her sixteenth birthday, but up until that point Tom didn’t even know he had an Uncle!
Tash is given a rucksack by her farther, full of leaflets. As she waits by the vulture tree for her mother (who does not come) she put’s her hand inside her rucksack to look at the papers her father shoved in there as he insisted she must take the rucksack with her. She discovers some ‘Snow Lion’ secret resistance leaflets in the bag, and slowly as the story progresses she begins to realise what risks her Dad took. There are also more secrets to unravel but to find out what they are you will have to read the story!
This was the first in a series of steps in which Tash realises there is a lot she didn’t know about her fathers involvement in the resistance.
There is a lot more I could say about both stories. But, that would involve giving away things that could spoil the story for someone that wanted to read it. Both Tom and Tash in their different settings go on physical and emotional journeys, in which they learn they had strengths they didn’t know they had and what is truly important to them. I would highly recommend both stories for anyone (including adults) aged 10 years or more.