Monday, July 11, 2011

Rowan the Strange by Julie Hearn

It is September 1939 and Rowan Scrivener, 13, is in the fight of his life and it has nothing to do the war between England and Germany and everything to do with the state of his sanity. Rowan has always been a little ‘strange’ but now he is hearing voices in his head. They are getting louder and stronger and they are telling him to do things that hurt people.

His parents decide to put him in an asylum with the strong belief that Rowan will be helped there. The egotistical director, however, is more interested in publishing a razzle-dazzle article on a controversial new form of therapy then in helping Rowan. Electroshock, which sends electrical shocks to the brain, is relatively new and no one really knows what it will do, so the director has brought in a German doctor, Dr. von Metzer, to do some test cases and, diagnosed as schizophrenic, Rowan is an ideal candidate for it. But when Rowan emerges from the confusion of having his brain shocked, the doctors have a really unexpected consequence to deal with – Rowan now believes he is Superboy from the planet Krypton.

Rowan, however, isn't the only test case. He shares a room with Dorothea, a very intelligent teenaged girl with a quick smart mouth, who also just happens to see people’s guardian angels, including her own – Joan of Arc.

My first reaction to this book happened when I judged it by its cover. It has one of the worst covers I have ever seen and after I finished the book, I disliked the cover even more. It completely fails to capture Rowan’s basically kind, compassionate, serious nature. And so it sat on my shelf for a long time. But when I finally started reading, I was hooked before I finished the first page.

Rowan the Strange is set during the first year of World War II – the year of the phony war when no major fighting occurred - outside the asylum. But everyone’s nerves are taut with anticipation. Inside the asylum, deep feelings of hate are running high among the hospital’s staff against Dr. von Metzer, who, they assume, is a Nazi. And I admit, in the beginning, I expected von Metzer to be a Dr. Mengele equivalent. But I soon realized that Hearn turns all our expectations about the characters upside down in this book and, like the cover of the book, forces the reader to see beyond our first impressions.

Ms. Hearn has drawn the characters of Rowan, Dorothea and Dr. von Metzer with such depth, that the loneliness they feel because of their ‘outsider’ status is palpable. But the bond that forms between these three very gentle people is so genuine that it is enviable, especially in comparison to some of the other more socially acceptable but cruel, superficial characters in the novel.

Rowan the Strange is also a YA novel that could, like so many coming of age novels, have a great deal of appeal to an adult audience. It is straightforward story and, though not predictable, it is disturbing. Ms. Hearn’s writing style is clear and concise, and the topic of mental illness well researched. There are detailed descriptions of how electroshock is done and the immediate recovery process, which I found disquieting. There is also an interesting parallel between the treatment Rowan receives in an asylum thought to be compassionate and the so-called ‘euthanasia’ certain children were subjected to in Nazi Germany at the same time.

We live in a world where mental illness is not longer hidden away in asylums, but retrograde often happens, and we go back to doing things the old way. I highly recommend reading Rowan the Strange, first because it is a good, well written story and second, to remind us that asylums are not necessarily good things to go back to. I rather agree with Dr. Metzer’s comments:

“Compassion…human kindness…the effects of these, are far more than the shocks. I have seen and can measure with confidence. Cruelty too. And just recently I have come to a startling thought: is a person’s strangeness always to be seen as such a terrible thing? A thing to be altered, hidden away or even, in extreme cases--” (pg 308)
This book is recommended for readers age 12 and up.
This book was purchased for my personal library.

You can download and read the first chapter of Rowan the Strange at Children’s Books

Julie Hearn received the following well-deserved honors for Rowan the Strange
2009 Shortlisted for the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize
2010 Shortlisted for the CILIP Carnegie Medal

More reviews of Rowan the Strange may be found at Linus's Blanket  The Book Bug Write Meg and Vulpes Libris

This is book 9 of my British Books Challenge hosted by The Bookette


  1. I need to find a copy of this book to read! It looks so interesting; I've never run across a book dealing with WWII asylums, though the description reminds me a bit of The Earth Kitchen by Sharon Bryant, which takes place during the Cold War.

  2. It sounds really bizarre, but really intriguing. I may have to check this out. LOVELY review!

  3. Susanna and Cat, I hope you do read this book, it was really interesting. I know it sounds a bit bizarre, but it really isn't. Enjoy!