Review: Beck by Mal Peet and Meg Rosoff
By Lesley Smith
Beck is a picaresque coming-of-age novel set in the first half of the twentieth century. The central character is a mixed-race orphan who suffers from physical, sexual, emotional and racial abuse, but eventually finds his place in the world.
Prejudice influences his very conception, as his mother meets his father when he is drinking beer in a street in Liverpool. A black sailor, he has been refused entry to the pub. After his family all die in a flu epidemic, Beck endures three years of harsh treatment in an orphanage. He is then shipped to Montreal to lodge temporarily in a home run by Catholic priests and learns to nurture plants in the priests’ vegetable garden. This learning serves him well in later years, but the abiding memory of this time, and one which comes back to haunt him again and again, warping his attitude towards any kind of loving relationship, is the appalling physical and sexual abuse he suffers from the priests.
Sent to work on a farm, Beck is despised, half-starved and made to sleep in a barn because his skin is black. He runs away, but has a long way to travel before he finds a place where he can be properly accepted. The plot takes us on a considerable journey through Beck’s formative years and across Canada, although sometimes whole years are left out of the story and the reader is left wondering how Beck managed to survive during these periods. A pivotal moment is his meeting with an older woman called Grace. She is also of mixed race, but she has created a role for herself within the indigenous Blackfoot tribe who are themselves viewed as outcasts by society as a whole.