As a big fan of other novels by Avi like Crispin: The Cross of Lead and The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, I was thrilled to get to read an advance copy of The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts and interview Avi. If you’re devoted to middle grade historical fiction, action, and adventure, you’ll definitely want to read this one!
About the Book
In The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts, a young boy wakes to find his father missing and his house flooded by a recent storm. It’s 1724 in the seaside town of Melcombe Regis, England, and Oliver is alone with no money and no food. His father has left behind a barely legible, waterlogged note stating that he’s gone to London, where Oliver’s sister, Charity, is in some kind of trouble.
Exploring damage to the town in the storm’s aftermath, Oliver discovers a shipwreck on the beach. Removing anything from a wrecked ship is a hanging offense, but Oliver finds money that could save him from being sent to the ghastly children’s poorhouse, and he can’t resist temptation. When his crime is discovered, Oliver flees, following his father’s trail. His journey is full of cruel orphan masters, corrupt magistrates, and conniving thieves—but when he finally reaches his destination, Oliver finds that London might be the most dangerous place of all.
All the reviews, which have been glowing and star-studded, compare this story to those of Charles Dickens. Are the wonderful similarities they note intentional? Is your book an homage to Dickens?
Thanks for your kind words about The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts. I am a reader and admirer of Dickens, but I think this book is cast more in the light of those great 18th century literary lights, Fielding, Defoe, Sterne, Smollett, et al.
My real homage to Dickens is to be found in Traitors’ Gate. It is full of references to Dickens and his life. Indeed, my hero there is named John Huffam, which is taken from Dickens’ extended name.
Oliver is a fantastic character. He’s pugnacious and funny and brave. There’s so much to love about him. Where are the points of intersection between Oliver and a contemporary twelve year old? Where do they diverge?
Young people today, as in the 18th century, lived and still live in a world created, and usually controlled by adults. Not necessarily a bad thing, and often a necessary thing. That said, the young will often chaff under the restrictions, both physical and psychological of the adult world. Keenly aware of what is fair and unfair, they are the ones who should sit on the Supreme Court.
As I was reading your book, I was struck by the very tricksy way you use language. Here’s a bit from the first page:
On November 12, 1724, I, Oliver Cromwell Pitts, lay asleep in my small room at the top of our three-story house, when, at about six in the morning, I was shocked into full wakefulness by horrible sounds: roaring, wailing, and screeching. Confounded by such forceful clamors, I was too frightened to shift from my bed.
You manage to start with action but also language that feels appropriate for the 1700s. Can you tell us how you chose language that evoked the time period but was still accessible to young readers?
I have a great love of language and words. I enjoy browsing through dictionaries. (Short chapters!) English, the only language (alas) I know, has a huge and wonderfully rich vocabulary that has evolved over centuries. All of it is available to the writer. (And language invention is welcome.) I love using old, but understandable words in a historical context. Indeed, when writing historical fiction one of the key challenges is giving the language itself a sense of the past. I think of the Unabridged Oxford Dictionary as my writing partner.
One of my favorite things about this book is how funny it is. As I read, I started marking particularly funny lines, and by the end, I had a ton of tagged pages. Here’s one of my favorites:
I am of the belief that when two adults exchange a meaningful look in the presence of a child, there is little doubt that the adults will have nothing pleasing to say to that child.
Oliver is both astute and funny in this passage. And what about the horrible Mr. Probert (who gets what he deserves if you ask me!), who says:
An authority has written: The sooner poor children are put to laborious, painful work, the more patiently they will submit to it forever.
And of course, in this description of Oliver’s father:
A stiff-rumped clink-clank.
I could go on quoting you to yourself for a long time, but instead, can you tell us about the role of humor in this book? Dickens wasn’t very funny. How did you work in the laughs and still end up with a book that feels Dickensian?
Funny is serious work. In this book, what is humorous comes out of Oliver’s character, who is often alone, and keenly observant. But it also derives from the historical style of the 18th century, which can be comical and satirical. Writers of that day looked upon the world with amusement, affection, and skepticism, as did our own Benjamin Franklin.
The poorhouse where Oliver ends up is pretty awful, and Oliver’s escape from it is pretty marvelous. Were there really places like that for children in the 1700s?
The poorhouse is based on research I did, even to the daily food allowance. I also came upon an image of a punishment basket. The moment I saw it I knew I wanted to use it.
I know there is a ton of research behind this book. Were there any delicious factual tidbits that would have loved to work in to the pages but didn’t have room for?
As for what I left out, there is a whole library about British prisons, Newgate in particular, that could have been included. I somewhat regret that I did not use more of that.
We at the Mixed-Up Files are obsessed with middle grade literature. Why are you drawn to writing for this age group? What do you think characterizes middle grade and makes it distinct from young adult or adult books with young protagonists like those by Dickens?
I love the way middle-graders read. They are passionate readers, who can engage fully with the experiences depicted in a story. They embrace character and plot with enthusiasm. They care about what happens. They can be articulate about what they read, too, but not in a pedantic fashion. “It’s good.” “It’s bad.” “I loved it.” I hated it.”
“It was boring.” “It was exciting.” All cool.
They approach reading with both hands and an open heart.
I once had a letter from a middle-schooler which began, “I read your book, and it was boring at first. But by page two it got really good.”
I loved that.
They also like puns.
For the reader who adores The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts, which one of your other books should he or she read while waiting for the next installment?
Those who enjoy The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts might like the above mentioned, Traitors’ Gate, and also, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, Crispin, Beyond the Western Sea, Catch You Later, Traitor—all adventures stories with historical settings, all character driven.
I know more books are in the works. Any hints about what dreadful fate will next befall our noble hero?
As for Oliver’s fate, he has been sentenced to be shipped to the American colonies and sold into slavery for a period of seven years. I am writing the book now, and he is not enjoying the experience. Freedom calls, but an iron collar round his neck is not easy to get off. And where is his sister? I’m not one of those writers who always knows the endings. So, I’m working as fast as I can because I too want to know what happens.
About the Author
Avi is the author of many books for young readers including Catch You Later, Traitor, the Newbery Medal novel Crispin: The Cross of Lead, and the Newbery Honor books The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle and Nothing But the Truth. He lives in Colorado. For more information, visit www.avi-writer.com.