by Sylvia McNicoll
Pajama Press, 2014
Will Alton and his father are new immigrants to Canada. They are learning that Ontario in 1912 is not a welcoming place for Irish immigrants and that the grand life they dream of is elusive. Will sees a chance to better their circumstances when he enters a fly-catching contest. The question is, how far is he willing to go to catch enough flies to win?
I enjoyed this book tremendously. The story moves quickly, and Will is a immensely appealing narrator. Will is intelligent but also crafty; honest, but not above bending the rules to his own interests. He’s also sensitive, having lost his younger sister and then his mother, and it is this aspect of his personality that makes Will’s ultimate revenge on the fly so complex and so satisfying. The idea of the fly-collecting contest — as disgusting as it might seem to us today — was inspired by real events and real historical figures. This inspiration offers a unique and unexpected way to explore Will’s larger story.
Beyond the main plot, readers will find many absorbing themes, such as issues of poverty and class, bias and discrimination, sickness and loss. The story identifies emerging urban tensions (such as cars displacing horses, the luxury of indoor plumbing, which only some possess, and the need for government-mandated public health policy), but does so within the context of Will’s telling, so that the text never feels didactic, dry, or stuffy. This is a book that will reward follow-up conversations, and it could be well used in the classroom.
One feature I particularly appreciated about this book was its intense focus on Will’s physical world. Sensory details are brilliantly captured, enriching our sense of history and the immediacy of the story. We smell with Will the awful garbage and rotting manure he digs through in pursuit of flies, see the ragtag boardinghouse he and his father inhabit, taste the sweet and tart Christmas memory an orange evokes, feel the sting of the strap he receives for disobeying the principle and its throb for hours afterward. And of course we see and hear and feel the thousands of flies Will kills — an ick factor that adds a delicious frisson to the story. Certainly part of the enjoyment of the book comes from its physical presentation. The copy I read has a gigantic, highly detailed fly laminated on the back cover (as well as numerous smaller laminated flies on the front cover), so that as I read, I was constantly touching the raised graphic and reminded of the fly and the evil it represents to Will — a very effective design decision!
Revenge on the Fly is an excellent book, one I expect to see nominated for awards in the coming months. It will make readers laugh, cringe, shudder — and think. I recommend it highly.
This review was originally published in Resource Links, June 2014.