The Castaways is a short, read-it-in-one-sitting sort of book, but you need to be prepared to have your heart strings wrenched – those of a weepy disposition may find themselves reaching for the tissues.
Tucker Freeman is a 13-year-old boy, growing up in the Great Depression. As if life isn’t hard enough, he’s the eldest child of a large family, whose mother scrapes a living as a waitress while his father disappears for months at a time, hitching dangerous and illegal rides on trains, in the hope that he can find something better. They live with Tucker’s miserable spinster aunt on his father’s side, who has little time for children and their impact on her savings, and who eventually persuades Tucker that the best way to help his family would be to quietly disappear and find his own way in the world. So he follows in his father’s footsteps, hopping onto a train and heading out into the unknown.
Luckily for him, he runs into a kindly, aging, African-American hobo called Elijah Hopkins, who takes Tucker under his wing and helps him in the only way he can – through his unfathomable well of kindness.
It’s a gut churning read. Vollmar and Callejo create dense, complex characters in Tucker and Elijah, two people at opposite ends of their lives. Their friendship is real and packed with emotion; their trials are both of their time and situation, but also echo through the years, becoming even more potent in our relative years of plenty.
There are lots of themes tackled in the book: race, poverty, homelessness and family relations to name but a few. But while they weigh on your brain and make it impossible to read the book without pondering upon them, they’re so deeply woven into the plot that they don’t detract from it in the slightest.
The original black and white artwork has been enhanced in this volume with an extra colour – a sort of greyish blue hue that’s used extensively throughout and adds depth to the art and definition to the characters. The characters themselves are simplified, like caricatures, but this helps bring out the emotion in their expressive faces.
The blurb on the back of the book compares this to the writings of Mark Twain and it deals with many of the same themes. But its modern perspective and accessibly illustrated style brings a different angle. It’s a wonderful book if you don’t mind your emotions being taken on a rollercoaster ride to the depths of sadness and the peaks of joy, and would also make great reading for a younger audience, interested in what life might have been like for children of their age living in significantly harder times.