This review was first published in BookBird: A Journal of International Children’s Literature 51.1 (2013): 66.
“Anne of Green Gables for boys” is how many people would describe Rachna Gilmore’s latest novel, and to some extent they would be right. That Boy Red is an engaging, nostalgic depiction of rural life in 1930s Prince Edward Island, with a red-headed protagonist: but there the similarities end. “Red” is not an orphan in search of a “kindred spirit” but a mischievous young boy, one of five siblings. One of the early scenes—when Red and his brother play war with—and ruin—an heirloom lock of their grandmother’s hair, reminds me far more of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy (1933). When Wilder’s Almanzo ruins his mother’s best parlor wallpaper by throwing a blacking-brush at his sister, Eliza Jane, she patches the wallpaper to prevent their parents discovering the crime. It is this solidarity between siblings—even amidst rivalries and conflict—that resonates so strongly in That Boy Red and renders it a marvelous portrayal of family dynamics at a time when families had to pull together in order to survive.
The episodic nature of That Boy Red works very well with its target audience of 8-12 year olds. After the incident with the lock of Granny’s hair, Red continues to revel in childish pranks: he tricks his younger sister, who ends up getting lost; he interferes in his older sister’s romance; and he ends up taking refuge from a storm in the local bully’s outhouse. But when his father’s hand is seriously injured, Red demonstrates a level of maturity previously unseen by taking charge and finishing a carpentry contract in order to maintain his father’s reputation for high-quality, conscientious work. In the final scene, Red helps a grounded airplane pilot repair his plane, earning himself a ride. The reader will glory in what Red realizes, flying high, as he sees how all the parts of his world connect: having strong roots gives him the freedom to grow.