In a classic case of don’t judge a book by its cover, Julie Hearn’s Rowan The Strange is a moving, emotional and unforgettable read centering around 13-year-old Rowan Scrivener, a British teen battling “voices” in his head. It’s 1939 and England is at war — just as the battles begin in the Scrivener home. When Rowan accidentally harms his young sister, his parents decide it’s time to take him where he can get well: an asylum in the countryside.
Under the care of Dr. von Metzer, a German with experience in mental illness, Rowan undergoes electric shock therapy — and develops interesting new personality traits. While undergoing treatment, he meets Dorothea, a young woman who believes each of us has a guardian angel looking out for us. Spirited, angry and sarcastic, Dorothea “runs” the ward where Rowan stays — which, for a while, includes just the two of them.
The unlikely friends work through their issues together as they prepare for the Christmas pantomime, a play the asylum’s attendees put on each holiday season. After Rowan is cast in a major role, he must confront his own fears to perform his part well. And maybe help others in the process.
There aren’t enough great things to say about Rowan The Strange, a book I read for the Nerds Heart YA tournament. After pulling up the book — which I could only find imported from the UK, where it is published — I immediately cringed at the creepy cover, reading the description with a growing sense of unease. A teenage boy? A mental patient? An asylum? World War II? . . . Not my usual reading fare. And I seriously considered wrapping the book to hide the cover art, so much did that blue face disturb me. (And prompted my sister to walk into the room, wrinkle her nose and yell, “What the hell are you reading?!”)
Well, I was reading Rowan. And what a strange, glorious adventure it was.
The book’s strength lies in our main character — a young boy who has no idea what’s happening to him and why, who desperately clings to the belief that someday he’ll be “normal.” Taunted as “Ro the Strange” by classmates and his sister, Rowan tries to control the voice in his head that causes him to have “panics” and do strange things, but he’s powerless to stop it. What carried me through the narrative was the belief that Rowan was, in his heart, a good person — a good son, a good brother. This wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, really, but it most especially wasn’t his.
Every preconceived notion I had about the plot proved wrong. I assumed the Scriveners would be a surly lot, angry that they had a “damaged” son, embarrassed by him and desperate to send him away. (Wrong.) I assumed Rowan would be an awkward, silly boy, dangerous and scary and just plain weird. (Wrong.) I assumed Dr. Von would be a masochist, a deranged German doctor with no regard for his patients’ well-being and only a regard for the “science” of the experiments he performed on them. (Wrong.)
In fact, I was wrong about nearly everything in Hearn’s novel — including my own belief that I would loathe this one, turning the pages as if weights were positioned on my fingers. In reality? I tore through it in record time, eager to find out what happened to Rowan and hopeful that he would find the solace he seeked. I loved his nana, a kindly woman who never once treated Rowan like he was someone to fear, and his parents, who were so supportive. Against the backdrop of World War II in London, the Scriveners managed to stay brave, strong and loving — even with their children all over the country.
You know? I just loved this book. If you get the chance, I think you’ll — surprisingly! — really love it, too. And check out Nicole’s review of this marvelous novel.
4.75 out of 5!
Rowan The Strange was read in conjunction with Nerds Heart YA, a tournament showcasing under represented young adult literature. Check back tonight to learn whether Lost by Jacqueline Davies or Rowan The Strange will advance to the next round! My decision will be made with Nicole of Linus’s Blanket and posted at 7 p.m. Tuesday.