Author Barabara Henderson as a child (smallest at front in yellow T-shirt) with family in front of the Forth Bridge.t
I was lucky enough to review, back in 2016 Barbara Henderson’s first middle grade historical fiction book Fir for Luck. It’s therefore with great pleasure and much delight that I accepted an invite to join the blog tour for Rivet Boy.
Rivet boy is based on the Forth River in late Victorian Scotland. It’s about 12 -year old John Nicol. He has to leave school to get a job at the Forth Rail Bridge construction site, he knows it’s dangerous. Several people have already fallen from the bridge into the river below. But, John has no choice – with father gone, he must provide an income for his family – even if he is terrified of heights.
Barbara Henderson has a real skill at giving a voice to children’s experiences of certain events in Scottish history. John was a character that I immediately warmed to, the rich language strikes a great balance between giving insights into how John is feeling and providing descriptive details that immediately take you to another time and place. But, there is so much that will resonate with kids in the Uk today too. From the one bedroom flat John lives in with his sister, mum and grandad, where mum has to sleep on a pull out mattress in an alcove in the kitchen. To John’s concerns about leaving his friends at school and having to deal with cruel gang leaders on the work site.
The story is called Rivet boy, because young boys were used as part of a team of four to put the rivets in, that held the Forth Rail Bridge together. After he’d been trained in the workshop it was John’s job to heat the rivets in a fire, he then passed (or threw) it to the next person, who then quickly put it in the hole and the two remaining people hammered it in place. Sounds tricky enough, try doing that high in the air, above the river Forth.
A riveting historical adventure, that’s both heartwarming and heart-wrenching in places, with plenty of tense moments to keep you reading. But, it is also a story of hope, that gives insights into social and economic disparities of the time and the engineering history of one of Scotlands most important landmarks. The Forth Railway bridge has connected Fife with Edinburgh since it’s construction in 1890.
John is lucky to make some good friends who help him in a number of ways. The first is Mr Peebles, the Carnegie librarian. I love how John’s treat for his 12th birthday is to go to the library where the librarian (having been clued in an earlier occasion by his mum) is waiting for him with his library membership card, and a book suggestion, Treasure Island. What makes it even more exciting is the story is set only 7 years after Robert Louis Stevenson wrote it. The second friend John’s makes is Cora, the daughter of the man who drives the rescue boat.
Interwoven, with the danger and hardship of John’s first days working on the Forth construction site, and his daily journeys by train and ferry to work, there’s the touching story of the red squirrel John rescues. He names the squirrel ‘Rusty’ and feeds it crumbs each day in-between his journey on the train and ferry. The squirrel then become a character in his own right in the story, turning up in the most unlikely of places.
Another element that is introduced to the story early on is a parcel that arrives from his Aunt who has emigrated to America. Once again no opportunity is wasted to use it’s arrival to illuminate the circumstances of John’s life.
“She holds a parcel. A parcel? We rarely see the parcel in these parts because non of us are high and mighty enough to merit mail. But, she is right the parcel bears an American stamp.”
In the parcel is a leather bound small book, with blank pages. His Aunt refers to is as an ‘autograph’ book and says that in America some collectors build up quite a collection of autographs from famous people and ‘make a great deal of profit’ when they sell them.
It is an extraordinary insight into the building of an amazing structure and, a thoughtful and engaging insight into a 12 year olds boys daily life, where despite difficulties, hardships and danger with the help of Mr Peebles, Cora and ‘Rusty’ the squirrel, he find’s a way forward.
I highly recommend for 9+ years. A must for any schools in Scotland. But, where ever you live, Rivet Boy is such a great story, if your re-designing your KS2 curriculum, then add in a section on engineering structures and bridges and put this middle grade story centre stage.