As I read David Almond’s The True Tales of the Monster Billy Dean Telt By Hisself I kept thinking of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. Both stories center around preadolescent boys who have become part of an ad hoc families. Gaiman’s Bod is adopted by the graveyard’s ghosts and Almond’s Billy, while still in the care of his mother, is also cared for and taught by Mrs. Malone and Mr. McCaufrey. Both stories involve the afterlife and are set in earthy, dusty places – places eroded by conflict or time.
Some Goodreads reviewers complained about the invented spelling David Almond used to write his book. They understood that the story was written to simulate the way Billy Dean would’ve written it but it made the book challenging to read without really intensifying the readers engagement in the story. It was nonsensical and inconsistent. Some misspellings made sense because they reminded me of the invented spellings my children used as emergent writers, sounding out the words on paper, but other spellings were correct beyond “a” and “the” of high frequency vocabulary (words that emergent readers subconsciously memorize because they see them often).
Though frustrated at first, curiosity superseded and drove me through the rest of the book. I needed to know what happened next to the boy who wrote his memoirs in blood on a mouse-skin canvas with a feather. It was gothic. Gaimanesque. Dream-like and mysterious. Billy’s language eventually made sense to me. It was symbolic. The bombs that broke Blinkbonny have also broken its language like the shattered church statues that Billy and his mother scour its ruins for. Billy reassembles both as best he can with his makeshift glue. They no longer look like the original but their meaning remains.
Billy’s tales tell a war story from a survivor’s perspective. What happens to the people after the soldiers stop fighting in their neighborhood. I remember World War II photographs of children and adults in dusty rags standing amidst the rubble of an airstrike. I remember the same photos in the Middle East but in color. Same poses, different wars.
I imagine the plight of refugee children, violently uprooted from their homes and planted in unwelcoming soil. Without formal classrooms, learning occurs in the context of need and resources. Parents do the best they can to recreate their own childhood and preserve their own parents’ beliefs, while assimilating new languages and practices.
Billy’s father, the Reverend, teaches Billy bible stories. Mrs. Malone has loss of faith in God but freely encourages Billy to contact the dead so that the living can have some sense of peace. Mr. McCaufrey teaches Billy how to carve meat and gifts him with a knife, telling the story of how he received his own knife from his father. Billy and his mother claws through the dirt in an effort to reclaim broken symbols of their faith and hope.
Mrs. Malone believes Billy is the relief the broken world has been waiting for. Though she never comes out and says it, Billy’s entry into public life is akin to the Bible’s Second Coming. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas relays the story of a young Jesus bringing birds made of clay to life. A young Billy is lead to believe he can bring the inanimate to life and attempts to do so when he sews wings of a dead bird onto the body of a dead mouse. He fails where Jesus succeeds. However, under Mrs. Malone’s tutelage Billy like Jesus develops the power to heal and pilgrims come from all around outside Blinkbonny to see him. Billy even “speaks in tongues.”
The cause of the war that lead to the bombing of Blinkbonny is never revealed. At the start of the book Billy tells us that the bombings are still going on. I accept this. Even though it is a war story, the causes of the war are unimportant. I don’t need to know why people are fighting. It’s more important to learn how Billy and the people in Blinkbonny are surviving.
While I can ignore not knowing what lead the war, I can’t ignore not knowing why Billy’s father returns to Blinkbonny. It’s implied that Billy’s father has been watching him all along and you can assume that Jack and Joe, who swore to be his protectors, were in league with his father all along. But I found it too hard to swallow that Billy would spend so little time telling us about his last encounter with his father after telling us how much his father meant to him throughout the book.
Overall, I enjoyed The True Tales of the Monster Billy Dean Telt By Hisself. Despite the narrative lapse when Billy’s father is reintroduced, the book ended well. As he had been through the book, Billy’ father is the catalyst for several of his life changing events, making it disappointing not to know more about his return. The book ends as Billy settles in a new home.