“Once I started writing the story, it was like I couldn’t stop, which was strange for me. I’d never been one for stories. I couldn’t stand all that stuff about wizards and fairies and “once upon a time” and “they all lived happily ever after”. That’s not what life’s like. Me, I wanted blood and guts and adventures, so that’s what I wrote.” (The Savage by David Almond, Walker Books, 2008)
It is difficult to know what to call this book – is it a children’s novel or a graphic novel aimed at children? It has some of the typical features of a graphic novel in the way that the words and images interact with each other, but minus the usual speech bubbles and boxed images.
It is also interrupted by a traditional narrative in the first person from our main character, Blue Barker. The best we can say, is that it is a book somewhere between a children’s novel and a graphic novel, which is reflective of the conflict that it explores – to be the kind and caring Blue Barker of old, to let an inner darkness, called the Savage, take over, or be something of a mix between the two?
The Savage is a physical manifestation of Blue’s grief and anger over the death of his father, and also acts to remind readers of the power of words, as the Savage, essentially a fictional character of a story written by Blue to conquer his emotional turmoil, eventually makes the leap from Blue’s notebook into real-life situations.
To assume that this book is only about how children come to terms with grief, would be a mistake however, as the creation of the Savage also represents the importance for children to have a private life. This is a common theme in Almond’s books; in modern life children are constantly observed and supervised, but Almond illustrates that this is not always healthy.
Blue decides not to share his stories with his teacher and only reads the more ‘safe’ passages to his mother and sister, but the parts of his creation that are violent and gruesome, he keeps to himself. This is, in part, because he doesn’t think his teacher and mother will understand, but also because he himself has not grappled with the implications of this darkness inside him. To come out of the other side of grief, Blue has to first tackle his demons alone.
His anger eventually becomes debilitating and Blue and the Savage start to merge to the point where Blue feels himself to actually be the Savage. He sees himself standing over the school bully, Hopper, and punching him in the face, but he also sees himself as the Savage standing over his sister and reaching out to comfort her – he is both human and savage. It is at this point that Blue learns to let go of the Savage and in turn his grief and anger.
There is a Savage in everyone, says Blue, and Almond seems to be saying that a little bit of wildness in children is ok, because this is how they learn and develop emotional maturity. Hopper too only realises his own cruelty and vulnerability when faced with someone more scary than he is.
Of course this message might not sit very comfortably with parents, who may feel the violence in this book is a touch too far for young readers. If we place this novel in the realm of fairytale, however – and we could easily do that – then the more gruesome elements are comparable with most of the classics.
The language used to tell the story of the Savage also helps our understanding; with the misspellings and phonetic sounds of the North East, the reader hears the voice of a child and therefore the violence appears more imagined, than brutally real.
These are not mechanisms to legitimise the violent elements of the book, however, it simply puts it into context and allows the reader to mark the difference between what a child can imagine and what they would actually do in reality.
Almond’s sister died when he was a child and his father died when he was 15, and these losses haunt his books, but love and a little bit of childlike imagination always come to the rescue, leaving readers feeling comforted and assured that there is light in dark places. The Savage is no different, as the novel ends with a more mature Blue looking back on his grief, a boy who is from a loving family and a role model for his younger sibling.
So let’s hold onto the ‘wildness’ of imagination for as long as we can, knowing that our good sense and ability to love and care for the wellbeing of others, will not allow us to go too far in the wrong direction.
Recommended for a reading age of eight and above.