What do you call a bunch of hippos? A bloat. What do you call a group of giraffes? A tower. What do you call a terrific YA novel about three boys who kidnap the ashes of their dead friend to give him a “proper funeral?” Ostrich Boys by Keith Gray.
The teenage narrator Blake and his buddies, Sim and Kenny, miss the fourth corner of their quartet. Their friend Ross was struck by a motorist while on his bicycle and killed. The days leading up to Ross’s death were not good ones, and the boys, led by Sim, seek revenge against those who treated Ross badly, and those who failed him even in the end, with what the boys consider to be a “farce of a funeral.”
The opening lines of the novel hint that, despite the riotous cover, this is not a standard coming-of-age romp. “Our best friend was ash in a jar. Ross was dead. Kenny, Sim and I were learning to live with it.” However, the three teens are learning to live with the death of their friend by vandalizing the property of those they feel wronged Ross: a teacher, the school bully, and maybe Ross’s ex-girlfriend. Each boy’s approach to life becomes clear in the first few pages. Sim’s aggressive, head-on stance manifests itself in the graffiti episode.
“This is for Ross, remember,” Sim whispered. “We can’t flake out now – we all agreed. You agreed too, Kenny. Don’t say you didn’t.”
Kenny made a noise – not quite yes, not quite no. “Can’t we just put a note through his door or something? I’m telling you: if we get caught—“
Sim looked disgusted. “Christ-on-a-bike, Kenny! You want to write a poem in a card too? A card with love hearts and rabbits wearing hats on the front?” He shook his head, popped the lid off the can of spray paint he was clutching. “No. It’s got to be big.”
Here we see the bully that Sim himself almost is, the insecurities and passiveness of Kenny. Blake, the narrator, is the thinker of the group. “…I still wasn’t convinced this was the right thing to do. For Ross, I mean. I didn’t give a damn about Mr. Fowler.” Although “Ross was the one who wanted to be a writer,” Blake who “was top in English” now is the member of the group most concerned with meaning and symbolism.
Ultimately, the three decide that the best way to honor their dead mate is by stealing his ashes and taking them to the town of Ross in Scotland to give him “a real funeral.” “Don’t you get it? We’ll take Ross to Ross, just like he always wanted. There’ll be no vicars, no teachers, no parents – just us, his best friends. Doing something for him he always wanted to do. A proper memorial.”
It is on this crazed train trip north into Scotland that the deeper motivations of the group slowly unfold. Though the dialog is quick, slangy, and witty, it becomes painfully clear that the boys are processing emotions much deeper and blacker than grief. This is the unique quality of Ostrich Boys. The standard, deep-coming-of-age teen book has so somber a tone, that the tragedy, past or present, is palpable almost before the book is opened – think The Outsiders or Where the Red Fern Grows. Ostrich Boys bounces along with the blithe denial of its namesake fowl, until the sand is blown away. As in real life, the clues to pattern and motivation are present along the entire journey, but are not seen until circumstances cascade beyond the point of avoidance. As the evidence piles up, Blake, Sim, and Kenny are forced to see the reality of their friend’s death and their own roles in the loss.
Into the midst of the grief and mayhem, Gray tosses details of humanity that enliven his characters, quirks to which all teens can relate: Sim has an encyclopedic knowledge of the proper names for groups of animals, the more obscure the better; Kenny, the prototypic ADHD computer geek, can’t sit still to save his life; Blake, though seemingly the most level-headed of the trio, has a hair-trigger temper when it comes to comments about his weight.
Ostrich Boys is a fast, deceptively light read that packs a tremendous punch. Like the three teens, we see the clues surrounding Ross’s death, but the obvious conclusion seems impossible in the face of such madcap adventure. This is British novelist Gray’s North American debut, and it is a doozy. American teens may be initially baffled, then likely turned on by the slang and mannerisms of the English teens. Unlike many English children’s books, Ostrich Boys has not been Americanized for Yankee consumption. With some darker themes, moderate swearing, and mildly suggestive situations, this is more of a young adult than middle-grade novel.