Aiden Sullivan and Charles Wheeler are 11 and 12 years old in Boston in 1889. Aiden, nominally Catholic, nominally Irish, has no father and a consumptive, dying mother. Charles, an orphan who has already done time for stealing a sandwich, is living by his considerable wits on the streets. They connect early and plausibly in Connie Hertzberg Mayo's fascinating new novel, The Island of Worthy Boys.
Mayo shows the boys' daily scramble to make enough money for food and, in Aiden's case, for rent to keep a tenament roof over his mother and little sister. Desperation finally pushes the boys into rolling drunken sailors on the waterfront, which works until it doesn't. One night, the drunk grabs Charles who has just opened the man's pocket knife, and, in horrible accident, plunges the knife into the man's gut. Worse, a woman happens out of an alley door, spots the boys, and cries havoc. Charles and Aiden now have to get out of Boston, but where?
With the connivance of a friendly whore and an accommodating minister, the boys pass themselves off as orphan brothers and are sent to the Boston Farm School on an island in Boston Harbor. That the school's policy not to accept boys with any kind of criminal record, which Charles has; that there is rampant anti-Irish feeling in Boston in the period, which means Aiden has to watch his accent; and that the school promotes a heavy Protestant Christian ethos to boys guilty of murder makes the island a refuge filled with tripwires.
At the same time, the school offers school, work, shelter, and regular meals. The book's middle section book dramatizes Aiden's and Charles's adjustment to school life as the reader knows this idyll is too good to last. As it is.
The Boston Farm School on Thompson Island in Boston Harbor was a real institution, and Charles Bradley, the superintendent of the school in the book, was in fact the superintendent from 1888 to 1922; his wife Mary was the school's matron. The school was finally closed in 1975.
Mayo has taken the basic factual information about the school and 1889 Boston society to create two engaging 12-year-olds in Aiden and Charles. The novel works so well I think because Mayo is able to evoke the times, the society, and the thought processes of the characters. We see the world through the eyes of Charles, Aiden, and Superintendent Bradley; they are all different, and they are all convincing, given who they are and what they want.
Although the two protagonists of The Island of Worthy Boys are pre-teen, which tends to cast a novel into the YA genre, I believe this is a book adults and young adults can find rewarding. Young people will be interested how Aiden and Charles fill their days in Boston, scrounging for pennies, and at the school, adjusting to life with 98 other boys. Adult readers will be interested in Mayo's evocation of 19th century assumptions about child raising, the era of "As the twig is bent, the tree will grow." Bradley turns out to be an unusually enlightened and kind reform school superintendent. I finished the book pleased and satisfied, and, perhaps more importantly, convinced that the lives Mayo has realized could have truly lived while the drama of their story carried me along.