I am in two minds over this book. And I think that reflects the fact that the book itself is trying to be two things at once.
On the one hand this is a gritty realistic depiction of the most poor in a down trodden society. It is based on the trash piles that Mulligan witnessed in Manila, being combed over by children scavenging anything that could be useful, traded or sold. It is a genuine contemporary problem and the descriptions of the trash piles, of the slum town of Behala are effective and chilling for a young adult book. There is a strength in Mulligan’s writing when describing these through the eyes of Raphael, Gardo and Rat, his three protagonists and principal narrators.
Having stumbled onto a bag in their scavenging, Raphael discovers a moderate fortune, photographs of a dead man and his daughter and a key. It soon transpires that the police are also after the contents of this bag and offer 10,000 pesos for its recovery and another 1,000 pesos to every family. It is here that the narrative falters for me: the brutality with which the police persecute Raphael was convincing and chilling; but the speed with he rejects the offer of the money stretched my suspension of disbelief too far.
As a fable (and one that I felt was explicitly Christian) I understand that Raphael had to reject the temptation of the money; but set in an otherwise realistic convincing environment it jarred.
As did the literacy of the boys. Again I understand it is written in retrospect and possibly with the benefit of a later education and I can accept their narrative voices. What struck me, though, was the picture of them sitting around reading newspapers and the Internet. Again a small, jarring detail.
In fact I felt the life of these boys was just slightly romanticised. They meet other street boys in the course of the novel; they sneak their way into the train station boys’ territory, night sweepers share a cigarette with Raphael, they are hidden in a gang of youths… They almost seem like the Baker Street Irregulars or Robin Hood’s Merry Men. Again, in itself, this is no bad thing; in a contemporary gritty setting, it didn’t quite work for me.
As a teacher, however, I see much to recommend this book: the characters are vivid and well created and their voices are convincing. I particularly liked the voices of the more minor characters who took over the narration from time to time. I think a lot of boys will read this very much as an adventure story and it does appeal to the powerful idea of the underdog rising up to combat and succeed in a small but significant way against a corrupt political system.