David Skuy, author of the popular trilogy of Charlie Joyce hockey novels, returns to Canada’s national winter sport with his first stand-alone novel. This sensitively written and compelling book tells the story of Mouse, an orphaned 12-year-old boy living in the fictional city of Brentwood.
After his mother dies of cancer, and with no other relatives to turn to, Mouse falls in with a rag-tag band of Dickensian street kids who call themselves Undergrounders because they sleep in an abandoned subterranean shopping mall. Mouse’s days are spent panhandling, shoplifting, scrounging the city for food, and avoiding – not always successfully – a rival and brutal group of kids called Streeters.
Mouse, whose real name is Jonathan, also has a talent for hockey. When a chance opportunity allows him to steal some skates, a stick, and a puck, he heads for the local rink, where he is befriended by some boys playing shinny. Seeing how good he is, they enlist him to play for their AA team, and the rest of the novel has Mouse struggling to negotiate his double life.
Because Skuy has not given Mouse a larger main objective, the story lacks drive. That said, the book’s episodic structure provides enough daily strife that the tension rarely lags. And it is implicit that, even though he is unaware of it himself, what he really needs is a route back to normalcy.
While the pat message about the value of sports is a touch overplayed here, the novel’s real strength comes from Mouse’s experience of the world as a fearful and dangerous place. Also, though Skuy ultimately offers up a storybook ending, the grittier aspects of Undergrounders may well give young readers pause to consider what life must be like for the innumerable homeless children of the world.