The Bog Child by Siobhan Dowd


The Bog Child is set on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in 1981; Fergus accompanies his Uncle Tally to cut peats1. In the process of cutting peats, Fergus (almost literally) stumbles across a body buried in the cutting nearby, and the two rush off to tell the Gardia…after parking the van, loaded with illicit peats, parked a safe distance away. Initially, the police believe it to be someone who’s died recently, but soon realize that it’s an Iron Age “bog body”, and an archaeologist team is called in to remove the body safely without destroying any forensic evidence. The chief archaeologist, Felicity, and her daughter Cora end up renting Fergus’ mother’s spare bedroom, and Fergus and Cora end up becoming quite enamored of each other. There are, of course, a number of complications: Fergus is a courier for the Northern Irish freedom fighters but has become wary friends with one of the border guards, Cora won’t be staying in the area so a long term relationship is right out, and Fergus’ older brother has gone on a hunger strike, along with Bobby Sands. Fergus is torn between the various poles in his life.

Radiocarbon dating (and X-rays) reveal that the bog body is from approximately AD 80; for those who weren’t paying attention, Vesuvius erupted in 79, thereby destroying Pompeii and Herculaneum and the ensuing ash cloud went on to disrupt harvests producing famines the following year. While the modern scientists can only guess this, Fergus’ dreams about “Mel”, as he’s named the bog body, reveal (probably) that she was hung as a sacrifice, but stabbed by her beloved brother so that she would not feel the pain of the noose. As the modern story progresses, we find that Joe has entered a coma as a result of his prolonged hunger strike, and is put on intravenous feeding…and that Fergus has not been smuggling bomb-making supplies across the border, as he feared, but “only” contraceptives. It is not his compatriots which are making the deadly bombs, but his beloved Uncle Tally.

It’s inadvisable to judge an author’s output by only one book; however, if this is any indication of Dowd’s talent, I wouldn’t mind reading more. A bit of background might be necessary for those outside the U.K. who do not have the equivalent of an O-level in foreign history–while it wasn’t an issue for me, bluntly I’m not sure how many American kids in the intended age range will know the political background of Ireland. The short version: currently, Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom2, and the Republic of Ireland is a separate political entity. Between 1920 and 1972, this portion of Ireland had what is called “home rule”–that is, they had their own parliament and government. In 1972, home rule came to an end–the U.K. took over completely rather than merely paying lip service to Irish Independence. Needless to say, the locals were a bit cheesed off at these changes in their political status; I wouldn’t go so far as to say Belfast schools had O-level exams in grenade making, but the related events3 involved rather a lot of rock throwing and riot gear. This would have been recent history at the time The Bog Child is set, and would have been part of Fergus’ life much as the destruction of the World Trade Center(s) would be to American kids his age today.

I heartily recommend this to the intended audience today, and to any adults who aren’t embarassed to be seen reading kids books, though I might suggest a bit of a brush up on recent Irish history before American kids read it. I suspect they’ll get more out of it if they do. For example: why was it a big deal that Fergus was smuggling contraceptives into the Republic of Ireland? I’m not sure how best to describe Dowd’s writing style, other than to say “At times, I forgot I was reading at all and imagined myself in the book.”

Guardian

1blocks of compressed peat moss, used for fuel–American kids from forested parts of the country can stop laughing now: 19th century immigrants to the Plains states had to use buffalo ****
2the governmental entity which includes England, Scotland, Wales, and Cornwall
3in classic example of national understatement, events leading up to the suspension of home rule and subsequent protests are referred to as “the Troubles”; this is akin to referring to the Selma to Montgomery marches (and resulting police response) as a minor scuffle.

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