Rowan the Strange is set in 1939, just on the eve of England entering the fighting in World War II. Everyday brings fear of bombs and warfare and all live on the edge- ready to flee to air raid shelters, families poised to send their children away until the fighting is over. Thirteen-year-old Rowan Scrivener is gearing up for a different type of fight. Rowan has always had problems with temperament and suffers from strange “fits” that the family has endured for years, but lately the voice that he hears is asking him to do things, and each request escalates in severity and violence. After Rowan injures his sister and himself within the space of a couple of days, his family decides that they have no other choice but to commit him to a mental institution for diagnosis and treatment.
It took me awhile to pick this one up because I was so turned off by the cover. I’m not sure what the thinking behind it was- if it was to make the story seem more suspenseful or to hint that the doings at the mental institution were sinister. Whatever the meaning behind it, it didn’t encourage me to read it, and I wondered if it made the topic of mental illness scarier than it needed to be. I have to say that nothing on the cover could have prepared me for the depth of my love for the characters within and the masterfulness of the storytelling that Hearn accomplishes. Everything was covered and not one detail was too much. I loved this story!
Julie Hearn’s novel is wonderful and works on many levels – as a story about a teen and his family in the grips of mental illness, as a boy’s coming of age story, and as a beautifully nuanced piece of historical fiction. I felt like I had a good grip on how Rowan’s moods settled in on him, forcing him to act in ways which he couldn’t control, overriding his own voice and making sense at the the time, eventually scaring even him. The novel was steeped in suspense – I wondered what would happen at every turn, how Rowan’s treatment would go, if it would work, and if anything harmful would happen to him at the asylum?
The supporting characters were engaging and complex, and the secondary story concerning Rowan’s German Dr. Von, cleverly brought the moral complexities of the war more to the forefront of the story, and illustrated the fear and loathing that English citizenry felt for the Germans. Dr. Von’s own feelings about the work he was doing abroad (in England), and if and how he might have played a role in events unfolding in his own country are also chillingly explored. Rowan’s fellow ward mate, Dorothea, was intriguing and her loneliness touching – her only company for most of her troubled life is being able to see others’ guardian angels and the rich relationship with her own Joan of Arc guardian angel. I was very moved by the relationships that their little group formed with each other.
This novel will be of interest to so many readers and it definitely hit a lot of my curiosity spots. The time period of the war provides the historical element, but the novel also examines electroconvulsive therapy just as it’s starting to come into play with the treatment of mentally impaired patients. Hearn covers most all of the angles and the reader gets to see the director of the institution’s thoughts on the new treatment and how he hopes they will benefit the hospital, contributing to his own prestige and personal gain.
Rowan the Strange covers a lot of ground in a completely engaging and accessible way, and I felt that I learned a lot in a bunch of different areas. Hearn is a fantastic writer. I enjoyed how real Rowan was. I can’t even think of a character whom I have loved so much in recent reading. At thirteen he is basically a child who is just emerging as a teenager, and his sensitivities and insecurities concerning his condition and struggle with himself was what pulled me through this book. I was so invested in finding out what would happen next that I looked up only when I had, sadly, reached the last page.