Crow Boy by Philip Caveney is an engagingly written time-travel adventure. It is cunningly plotted with an elegant twist involving one of its central figures, the 17th-century Edinburgh plague doctor George Rae. Its 21st–century hero, Tom Afflick, is a ‘sassenach’, an outsider. Originally from Manchester, he has been brought to Edinburgh by his mother to live with her and her new boyfriend. He hates it. The kids at school pick on him, calling him a ‘Manky’; the weather is foul, and he misses his friends back home in England. Then, on a seemingly normal school trip to Mary King’s Close – a subterranean street entombed beneath the new City Chambers in 1761, and opened to the public as a tourist attraction in 2003 – Tom finds himself transported back in time to Edinburgh in 1645. The last year of the plague.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, Tom is forced to live and work in a filthy, decrepit and underfunded orphanage – that is, until he cures a fellow orphan with his own tiny supply of modern-day antibiotics, given to him for an earache, and is forced to work for the city’s plague doctor as an unpaid servant/apprentice. After scuppering the evil machinations of the doctor and saving the orphanage, Tom finally finds his way home to learn that his mother and father have agreed to a compromise over his living arrangements, allowing him to return to school in Manchester and visit Edinburgh (which he has come to enjoy) during the school holidays.
I enjoyed the scenes in the present as much as those in the past, as well as the unexpected plot twists involving alternate realities, which really kept me guessing as to how the story was going to end. I was a little disappointed by the ending, which felt a little to too convenient, and was also a bit worried when Tom left his box of antibiotics in the past, and nothing had changed in the future because of it. Surely there was risk he could unravel the very fabric of the space-time continuum and destroy the entire universe? Or have I watched the Back to the Future trilogy too many times? But in fact, Tom was very lax in his use of his modern-day gadgetry, such as his camera phone, in 1645 Edinburgh. I also felt Caveney could have used dialect a bit more. This would have added to the authenticity of Edinburgh (past and present); there is more to the Scots tongue than the word ‘bampot’. However, none of this spoiled my enjoyment of the story as a whole.
Unfortunately, the educational potential of the story is minimal, since Caveney exhibits an alarmingly poor grasp of what life was like in the past time period he depicts. It is a bit questionable that Scottish people making deals with other Scottish people in pre-Union Scotland would need to specify that they were using ‘Scottish pounds’ as opposed to just pounds, or more likely, merks. Worse, Tom shows several 17th-century people his modern paper money, and all they say in response is that it carries the wrong/unknown monarch; in fact, paper money was unknown in Britain until the 1690s (and did not depict the monarch for many years afterwards). Similar post-1690 details crowd into nearly every scene: tricorn hats, powdered wigs, frock coats, a steam engine used to power a woollen mill, mahogany doors, coloured velvet wallpaper, and tea-drinking among them. In perhaps the biggest such howler, a 1640s character tells another he needs to send for a priest to administer the last rites to a dying girl, never mind that Catholicism was highly illegal in Puritan-run Scotland at the time. Plague aside, the book is in fact an extraordinarily consistent depiction of the 18th century. So as to its historical aspects, perhaps the best that can be said about Crow Boy is that correcting its dozens of historical errors would make an interesting classroom exercise for 12 to 14 year olds. Fun, but fundamentally flawed.