When I heard last month that Bearmouth had won this year’s Branford Boase Award, I decided that it would be my next personal choice of read. This title by Liz Hyder was already on my radar, from when it also won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize for older readers earlier in the summer. And it also was chosen as The Times 2019 Children’s Book of the Year.
Here is the book blurb.
It only taykes one person to start a revolushun
Life in Bearmouth is one of hard labour, the sunlit world above the mine a distant memory. Reward will come in the next life with the benevolence of the Mayker. Newt accepts everything – that is, until the mysterious Devlin arrives. Suddenly, Newt starts to look at Bearmouth with a fresh perspective, questioning the system, and setting in motion a chain of events that could destroy their entire world.
In this powerful and brilliantly original debut novel, friendship creates strength, courage is hard-won and hope is the path to freedom.
This story is set deep underground in the Bearmouth mine, where the workers not only work hard for little pay, 6 days a week, but they live too. Food rations of gruel barely sustain them and they have to pay out of their wages for everything like candles, matches, hot water and clothes.
The tale is narrated by young Newt, whose age isn’t specifically mentioned, but probably about age 10-12. Newt hasn’t seen daylight since age 4, as it is too expensive to take the lift to the surface. Newt and the other miners are all very religious, praying to the Mayker. Every Sunday (Maykers Day), they climb 10 levels to pray in Maykers Hall, which is led by Mr Sharp, the overseer.
Thomas, an older miner is like a surrogate parent to Newt, and is teaching Newt and Tobe, their letters. Meanwhile, the book is written in a phonics-like language, with the words spelt like how Newt would say them. This meant I had to concentrate extra hard on reading this book, and I do wonder how anyone who struggles with reading will get on with it. I did manage to decipher most words apart the more technical mining related ones. For instance, can anyone work out what caban, hagger or mandril are?
Day in, day out, everything is pretty much the same. But then a new boy Devlin arrives in Newt’s dorm. And what Devlin says, sows a seed of doubt in Newt’s mind. How does Newt react? What will happen next?
This book struck a chord with me as quite a number of my ancestors worked down the pits from a very young age, at coal mines in the North East and lead mines in the remote Welsh mountains. I could tell that Liz Hyder had done plenty of research into 19th century mining.
It is a tale of friendships, foes, child labour, exploitation, grief, class, courage and tension. A unique very dark compelling YA read, which is targeted at age 13+. Bearmouth is Liz Hyder’s debut novel, so I shall certainly be interested to see what she follows up with.
Note does include scenes of sexual assault and attempted rape.