Young Mungo is Powerful (though derivative)



By Douglas Stuart

Grove Atlantic, 398 pages.

★★★ ½  




What do you do for a second act when your debut novel wins the Booker Prize? In Young Mungo, Douglas Stuart returns to similar turf as his 2020 stunner Shuggie Bain. Critics are slavering over his newest novel but, in my estimation, its first half hews a bit too closely to Shuggie Bain.


Stuart grew up in the Glasgow Springhill public housing scheme spotlighted in Shuggie Bain. Young Mungo’s tenements lie nearby. Stuart also returns to Scotland’s post-Margaret Thatcher 1990’s economic ruination and writes in an uncompromising (and untranslated) Glaswegian patter that is long on verisimilitude but challenging for the Scots-impaired. (Keep your cellphone open to a dialect translation guide as you read Young Mungo.)


Should you read it? Early on I would have said you could give it a miss, but Stuart won me over. The dysfunctional family he spotlights is semi-autobiographical. The Hamiltons are headed by Maureen–called Mo-Maw by her kids (weans or bairns in Scottish)– a single mother who bears the last name Buchan because she never married the departed father of Hamish (19), Jodie (16), and Mungo (15). Mo-Maw is only 34, so do the math and you begin to see the problem. Even were she not a hopeless alcoholic, she has the emotional maturity of a teenager and the equivalent indifference to adult responsibility. Hamish has been feral for years and though he has a flat of his own for his 15-year-old wife and wean, he basically lives on the streets. Jodie despises her mother for forcing her to become the de facto caregiver for Mungo.


Jodie loves Mungo dearly, but Mo-Maw thinks nothing of disappearing for weeks on end to pursue a boyfriend du jour–food, rent and household costs be damned. Her kids call her a Tattie-Bogle, a scarecrow and a heartless one at that. The sandy-haired Mungo, whose name derives from the nickname for Kentigern, Glasgow’s patron saint, is a sweet lad that all women want to mother. That’s especially so when they observe a bad rash on one of his cheeks, a result of constantly scratching it and an indication of his internalized anxiety. Another telling trait is his child-like (and sometimes inappropriate) devotion to Mo-Maw.


NPR has called Young Mungo a novel soaked in “toxic masculinity,” an apt way of describing it. Mungo is named for a saint, but he’s a “Proddie” (Protestant) whose tenement lies on one side of a motorway bridge with equally seedy Fenian (Catholic) flats on the other. The gang violence is analogous of that of Belfast. The Proddies are led by Hamish, a crude, bullying, vicious man who carries (and uses) a homemade tomahawk. He demands that Mungo join him in bloody punch-ups and raids against the Fenians. The only thing the two sides agree upon is that they hate “poofters” (gays).

Poverty rules in both tenements and each harbors a hatred for Thatcherism, so you might wonder why the sectarian violence. When Mungo asks his hot-headed brother that question, Hamish can’t articulate a reason other than “it’s an honour thing, I guess.” Wonder what might happen if a Proddie boy fell in love with a Fenian boy? Read Young Mungo.


Stuart has two parallel stories going. The first is Mo-Maw’s feeble attempt to make a “man” of Mungo by sending him off on a fishing trip to a rural loch with two older men. Memo: Don’t send your kid off with two guys you met at an AA meeting who have been in prison for sexual offenses. The second narrative is in Glasgow and involves the burgeoning relationship between Mungo and James Jamieson, a Catholic. One is a tale of abuse; the other is tender but problematic in a culture in which difference makes a difference.


Mungo is a lovable character for whom we root, but Young Mungo is like Shuggie Bain in that it is a “tough” book spotlighting struggles that are not easily overcome. Mungo’s face rash is symbolic of how society scars innocence. Rashes heal, but will Mungo? Or James? Jodie? Mo-Maw? How far can good intentions take you amidst squalor, hatred, and violence?


Young Mungo is powerful, but I again wonder whether if Stuart’s take is Shuggie Bain in new guise. Stuart is a wonderful writer and I will try anything he pens. Here’s hoping his next novel tills new soil. 


Rob Weir






Night Comes With Many Stars Fails to Shine



By Simon Van Body

Godine, 294 pages.




Set in Kentucky, this tale of drinking, gambling, poor decisions, and bad behavior reads like a hillbilly spinoff of The Mayor of Casterbridge. Except that Simon Von Body is no Thomas Hardy and none of his characters rise to distinction, even belatedly so. It spans the years 1933-2010. Readers might expect that someone would break the above cycle within a three-generation span but for the most part, sympathetic characters end up as victims and the circle remains unbroken.


Carol Clay is an illiterate, developmentally delayed girl whose sole consolations in life are a ragged doll she names Mary Bright and a patch of yellow table cloth that’s all she has left of her mother. She is “sold” by her abusive, alcoholic father to cover a gambling debt. (She’s actually sort of a loaner.) She’s fed better, but she’s also sexually abused and impregnated. Having fun yet? She is eventually spirited away by a Cherokee man who despises her father and deposits her with an African-American woman who lives with a White woman of Polish ancestry. Are they lovers? Who knows?  


Move ahead a generation and we find that Carol’s unfortunate first child, Rusty, is a happy-go-lucky mentally challenged kid who loves all things that have a Coca-Cola logo. Carol will be taught to read by Joe, nicknamed “Big Head,” who was raised by an African-American couple that took him in as he roamed semi-wild when his father was in jail. Joe is kind, marries Carol, and is as much her caregiver as a husband. He helps raise Rusty, and he and Carol eventually have a daughter, Alfreda. Joe’s not the sharpest tool in the box either, but an older neighbor couple helps out until Joe and Carol get a home of their own.


Alfreda becomes a teacher. She and her husband Randy have a son, Samuel, who pals around with Eddie, still another physically and socially damaged kid. Samuel is smart, but is better at gambling than school. While horsing around, Eddie nearly blinds Samuel and his funny-looking eye becomes a major part of the narrative. Samuel makes it through one semester at Western Kentucky State University before he decides it’s not for him. Both he and Eddie will struggle, though Samuel’s more stable family at least keeps him out of jail.


I give all this detail because I’d hardly blame you if you decide to give this novel a miss. I’ve not even mentioned murders, divorces, additional broken homes, more alcoholism, or a father who thinks that taking his son to a whorehouse will help him grow up. Or that setting up a business funded by a gambling windfall is cause for parental pride.


By now you can probably tell I disliked this book. Joe and Rusty are good-hearted, but not many nice things happen to good people. I’m not sure what the point of this novel might be. Is it the cycle of poverty? Well, Samuel’s folks aren’t rolling in dough but Alfreda and Randy are way better off than Carol’s parents, Joe and Carol. Are Samuel and Eddie supposed to be Appalachian versions of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn? Tom and Huck were mischievous and got into trouble, but they also had roughhewn charm that eludes Samuel and Eddie. At times it seems that Van Body wants to flash freeze Depression-era Kentucky and have us believe it’s still thawing out 70+ years in the future. This makes Van Body’s attempts to tick a few PC boxes seem like contrivances.


Night Came With Many Stars does Kentucky no favors. Unless you think rehabbing a house where unspeakable violence occurred is redemptive. I don’t.


Rob Weir




Imagine That! Art and Children's Books



Portsmouth Historical Society

10 Middle Street, Portsmouth, NH

Through September 25, 2022




I often joke that I’m finally ready for an elementary school education. After seeing a magical display of the art found in children’s books at the Portsmouth Historical Society, I’m anxious to test my thesis. Today’s toddlers and pre-adolescents have access to creative teachers, cool toys, amazing playgrounds, and marvelous books that make me want to take a mulligan for my own childhood. If you’re anywhere near Portsmouth, New Hampshire before September 25, pop in to the Imagine That! exhibition and join my pity party.


My childhood books seemed old even then: Golden Storybooks, Mother Goose, bowdlerized Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and such like. I never even read or heard Winnie the Pooh because it was English and that simply wasn’t on the American radar in the late1950s. Is it any wonder my mind was blown when I first read The Lord of the Rings trilogy in high school? 


Ekua Holmes



Imagine That! showcases images from children’s books. Let’s get this straight. You can call it illustration, graphic design, or doodling if you wish, but it deserves a more dignified label: art. Some of it is as expertly done as stuff you find hanging on fine arts museum walls and, if capturing the imagination is the goal, far more compelling to contemplate. 


I wonder if Ian McKellen used Wyeth's Merlin for his Gandalf



The Portsmouth show rightly identifies several progenitors of today’s children’s book artists. This is especially the case of those whose work got reproduced in some of the books from my childhood. Howard Pyle, Maxfield Parrish, H. A. Rey, Dr. Seuss, and N. C. Wyeth were among those who made folk tales and yarns spring to life visually. Each had a gift for supplying enough detail to supply mental pictures for the stories at hand, yet leave enough space for young minds to imagine new narratives involving the same cast of characters. To pick a few examples, Wyeth’s illustrations for Treasure Island became the way pirates or the magician Merlin were conceived.


Beth Krommes     



Mo Willems



Most of the show is given over to those who have more recently delighted youth including:  Chris Van Allsburg, Chris Van Dusen, Ryan Higgins, Ekua Holmes, Beth Krommer, David McPhail, Bob Staake, and Matt Tavares. It made my Western Massachusetts heart swell with pride to see works from those who lived and/or studied in the region: Holmes (UMass MAT), Eric Carle, Barry Moser, Mo Willems….


I adored this show and kept snapping away. Confession: I also had a relatively new lens with which I wanted to play. Hey, if I can’t play amidst children’s art there ain’t no justice! I would probably blow out the server if I uploaded all of my shots, so enjoy my sampling. 


Bob Staake 


Bob Staake






Chris Van Allsburg


Ekua Holmes

Chris Van Dusen

Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream used to sell a t-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “Be Ten Again.”  Make your way to Portsmouth and you can leave the shirt at home.



Rob Weir