Rowan The Strange, by Julie Hearn – Book Review

Rowan the Strange, by Julie Hearn
Oxford University Press  – April 2010– Hardcover – 352 pages
Source: Purchased for my personal collection

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.

Highly  Recommended.

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  1. Whoa — I agree that the cover is a turn-off. Your review has caught my attention–the historical aspects, the complexity, and the fact that you were riveted have pushed this onto my wish list.

  2. Yeah, that cover would have turned me off. It isn’t that it is scarey, just unnerving. Once again, that will teach me!

  3. Wonderful review, Nicole! So glad we shared the same reactions to this one. It was really outstanding and Rowan was such an unforgettable character. I have a feeling I’ll be thinking about this one for quite a while!

    And I completely agree with you about the cover: was it supposed to make things more suspenseful? It definitely seems to hint that what’s going on within the pages is “sinister,” and that couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, I think all of my wrong assumptions about Rowan stem from the cover. If it’s ever published in the U.S. (and I hope it will be!), I hope they’ll change the cover art.

    1. The cover and the potential implications of the cover were disturbing to me. As Meg points out, it is a UK cover and maybe sensibilities are different there, but It seems to portray mental illness in a more sinister/evil light than necessary.

  4. Yep, the cover would turn me off. I find it really creepy looking. However, your review is the second one I have read today that states this book to be wonderful, so I may have to look out for it.

    1. Meg and I both reviewed it for the Nerds Heart YA competition, and we were both floored by how much we loved this book. Totally unexpected!

  5. Thanks for the review! With just the title, I’d have guessed this was a children’s book. With just the cover, I’d have guessed that it was going to be a suspense novel, perhaps even a bit on the gruesome side. Here’s one of those situations where bloggers are going to have to be the ones to get the word out about this book because the publisher sure isn’t doing it justice.

    1. I knew about it because it was one of the books that I had to judge for the Nerds Heart YA competition. It’s a UK book, and it’s not available here, I got it on Book Depository, but I wonder how it did over there.

  6. With such a strong endorsement from you I will plan to add this to my TBR on Goodreads. I’m thinking the treatment of a young, mentally ill person couldn’t have been very good in 1939.

    1. Kathleen, I thought all kinds of things and I was constantly surprised. It made for a very different suspenseful kind of read.

  7. Well, I agree that the cover definitely throws you off: looking at that cover would never lead me to believe that this book deeply explores issues related to mental illness. The cover suggests some kind of horror story- not something I’m into at all. However, what you just described and reviewed sounds incredibly interesting. I guess that’s why they always say never judge a book by its cover: they can be so misleading!

  8. This is the second review I’ve read today that had a cover that turned me off and a review that completely intrigued me! Thanks for the suggestion.

  9. That cover is downright creepy! There’s a reason why I never watch horror movies that have anything to do with a mental institution. They really make the places seem awful!

    However, this book sounds really good, and I just added it to my to-read list.