The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts
In the tradition of his Newbery Honor book The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, Avi mixes high adventure and short, page-turning chapters with a vivid historical setting featuring a cast of highwaymen, pickpockets, and villainous criminal masterminds.
The year is 1724 and Oliver Cromwell Pitts, a twelve-year-old boy who looks far younger than his years, wakes up to find his home flooded and his father gone. Oliver’s attempts to find his father and sister in London lead him to be branded a thief and a highwayman, and his adventures along the way make THE UNEXPECTED LIFE a book that is nearly impossible to put down.
Avi’s latest is full of rich history and fascinating characters. The plot is perfectly arranged, the action is well paced, and the characters—both the evil and the good—are interesting and keep you rooting for them or against them.
This is a book that should be a part of every middle grade classroom. The vocabulary, wordplay, and history can be the basis for multiple lesson plans across many subjects, and I suspect every reader will identify with Oliver Cromwell Pitts and his plight at some point. The beauty of THE UNEXPECTED LIFE is Avi’s ability to write for the period in a way that is accessible and believable. Although the vocabulary might present a challenge to some students, it never seems overwhelming, and it’s a great introduction to classics that focus on that time.
Another wonderful aspect of Avi’s latest book is that it’s the first in the series. I became quite attached to Oliver Cromwell Pitts, and I look forward to spending more time with him in book two. However, I have to say that by the end of this book I identified strongly with Oliver’s assessment of his father: “It was hard to know if he was exhausted, appalled, or simply unwilling to acknowledge the world in which he found himself.” THE UNEXPECTED LIFE OF OLIVER PITTS isn’t a sunshiny book. There are (age appropriate) dark moments, and there are really awful people. Oliver’s approach to it all saves the book from complete darkness and despair. After all, a favorite saying of Oliver’s father’s is “"People care nothing for suffering. To get on, you must mask your heart with false smiles." And Oliver is a champion at that.
I highly recommend this book, and my thanks to the publisher and YA Books Central for an ARC of the book in exchange for my unbiased review.
Great characters and a lot of action
Oliver lives with his father, who is a nasty man and unscrupulous lawyer. His sister, who has been raising Oliver since their mother's death, decides to leave their sea side town and move to London to live with an aunt and uncle. After the family home is destroyed in a flood and his father leaves without telling him, Oliver is sent to an orphanage. He does not appreciate the hard life there and decides to run away to join his sister in London. This does not go well-- he steals money from a shipwreck, but that is soon taken from him by bandits who force him to help them rob stage coaches. He falls in with a man named Hawkes who gets him involved with Jonathan Wild, a notorious criminal. He does eventually find his sister and father, but it is under less than helpful circumstances. All three of them are eventually sentenced to death for stealing, and only his father's bribes to the judge get the children's sentences commuted. Oliver is glad that he will be sent with his sister to America, but soon learns that they are to be separated. Will they be reunited in the second book in the series?
Oliver is a stalwart character who doesn't let criminals, hunger, evil relatives or even a death sentence stop his undaunted desire to better his lot. He is sympathetic to his father... to a point. He realizes that the man has had challenges, but eventually calls him to task for his bad parenting. I do like one phrase that is sort of the family motto-- "People care nothing for suffering. To get on, you must mask your heart with false smiles." Oliver has very much taken this to heart, and it serves him well.
Readers searching for authetic historical novels like Updale's Montmorency, Lee's A Spy in the House, or Bradbury's Wrapped, will do well to pick up The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts or any number of Avi's own books that deal with this period of history.