March 17, 2010

Subject: A Book Review for St. Patrick's Day (Bog Child by Siobhan Dowd)

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Are you wearing green today? As usual, I forgot about the holiday. Fortunately, my youngest did not. She appeared for breakfast in a Kelly green hoodie and matching leaf-green t-shirt. Her St. Patrick’s Day spirit inspired me to hold off my planned post so I could write about a book set in Ireland that I recently finished.

Title: Bog Child

Author: Siobhan Dowd

Genre: Young Adult

Publisher: David Fickling Books, 2008


It’s the early 1980s in a small Northern Ireland border town. Fergus McCann needs to focus on studying for the exams that will take him away from Ireland to university. He struggles to concentrate, though, his mind and emotions occupied with the political turmoil that affects all aspects of Fergus’s life.

His older brother, Joe, is in prison, where he joins a group of hunger strikers appealing for status as political prisoners. Fergus’s parents argue constantly about the Troubles. And Joe’s old friend pressures Fergus to join the fight by transporting contraband across the border.

The novel begins when Fergus discovers a young girl’s body buried and preserved in peat. The body is presumed to be centuries old, and Fergus welcomes the opportunity to help a mother-daughter archaeological team investigate where and how the child died. Soon, Fergus hears the child’s voice in his dreams. Her story of betrayal and sacrifice mirrors many of the same themes Fergus encounters in his own times.

Bog Child brings to life a place and time in history that I know very little about. Dowd does not stop to explain the conflict, but much as Allyson describes in her recent posting about historical fiction at StorySleuths, the narrative alludes to factions and details in a way that lets the reader accumulate enough knowledge to understand the basics of the conflict. In the author’s note at the end, Dowd explains the hunger strikes of 1981. The book also inspired me to look up the Troubles online.

Writing Details

Dowd brings together a well-rounded group of characters in Bog Child. In addition to Fergus’s family, we meet Uncle Tally, who tends bar nearby, Owain, a young Welsh boy who stands guard at the border, and Cora, whose mother leads the archaeological studies. The characters reveal the complexity of the situation in Northern Ireland as well as the humanity of people who appear to be on opposite sides of the issue.

I really admire the way Dowd describes physical responses in a way that also reveals emotional reactions. Here are two examples from a chapter when Fergus visits Joe several weeks into the hunger strike. Joe asks to speak to Fergus alone and says, “You know. Love, That stuff.”

Fergus scrunched his fists to make the crying stop. “Yeah, I know.” He forced the crying feeling back down his throat. He sucked his lips between his teeth and bit the flesh, hard. He felt like a toddler crushing the jack-in-the-box back in (p. 177).

Dowd is unrelenting in her description of Joe’s state. His cause may be noble, but the experience of starving himself is anything but easy.

Another spasm came over Joe. His eyes dilated and he retched. Then he doubled over, grabbing his guts. Fergus got a whiff of something stale, like a breadbin that badly needed washing out, mixed with something chemical, like pear-drops (pp. 179-180).
Dowd writes with clarity and honesty about a place filled with conflict on many levels. She keeps the plot moving with a variety of storylines as well as a few unexpected twists.

I’m curious to know if anyone has read her other books. The London Eye Mystery has been in my pile of to-read books for a while.


  1. I am a great fan of Siobhan Dowd - A Swift Pure Cry - a coming of age novel about a poor Irish teenager who shoplifts her first bra - was a stunning debut.

    The London Eye Mystery is a mystery for younger readers with a lot more characterization and heart than the usual writing for that age group. It would have been Siobhan's debut novel but its publication date was pushed back when The Curious Incident came out.

    And I loved Solace of the Road - another coming of age novel about a runaway - you spend your time biting your knuckles as she makes wrong decision after wrong decision ... and yet it's not your usual grim teen novel because in Solace's journey she also discovers unparalleled encounters kindness and generousity.

    I hope you add them to your reading list ... you won't regret it!

  2. Hi Candy,
    Thanks for your recommendations! I've picked up A Swift Pure Cry at the bookstore multiple times and then set it aside because I'm trying not to add new books to my to-read pile until I finish some of the others! Solace of the Road also sounds great. I will definitely make sure to read them.