The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce
Frank Cottrell Boyce has done it again, creating a book that surprises, amazes, and twists. This is the story of what happens when two Mongolian boys join a class in England. They appear out of nowhere, suddenly there in school. The two brothers refuse to be separated, so the younger boy, Nergui, stays in his older brother’s class. The two wear large coats and fur hats. They immediately capture the imagination of Julie, one of their classmates, who is thrilled to be selected as their “Good Guide.” She wonders where they live, trying for days to follow them home, but they elude her. Chingis, the older boy, has photographs of Mongolia that he shares with everyone. The entire class learns more about Mongolia than they had ever known. But everything is not as it seems, and Julie discovers the truth too late to be of any help in the end.
The book is short, under 100 pages, with most of it being told in a flashback by an adult Julie. The design of the book adds much to the story, with lined pages that resemble a notebook and Polaroid photographs that capture Mongolia and England, perhaps a mix of both. The photographs in particular are cleverly done, hiding the truth and then revealing with equal success.
This is a powerful story that seems easy. It reads as a simple story about two unusual children joining a classroom, and then twists and turns. It speaks to community and acceptance throughout, showing a class that is eager and willing to embrace the new children, much to my delight. Then the story takes on a more serious subject, about immigration, fear and deportation. There is no didactic message here that is too heavy handed, instead it is kept serious but not message driven.
The book also dances along an edge of imagination and reality where children who pay close attention will realize that even in the end there are questions about what has happened and what truly was. This dance strengthens the novel even more, making it a powerful choice for discussion.
Highly recommended, this book may just be his best, and that is definitely saying something. The short length, powerful subject and complex storyline all combine to make a package that is approachable for young readers, discussable by classes, and pure delight to experience. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from library copy.
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