Reviewed by Jenny Mounfield
by L.M. Visman
Paperback, $12.95, ISBN: 13 978-1461186434
When I first learned this title was self-published my immediate thought was, Oh gawd, what have I done? But rather than the amateurish drivel I dreaded, this is a well-crafted and surprisingly well-written story of one boy’s quest for understanding and justice.
Set in 1958 Australia, Ben’s Challenge is at its heart an historical coming-of-age story with a fair dose of mystery and intrigue thrown in. The story begins with news of thirteen-year-old Ben Kellerman’s father’s death in a hit and run. It’s an accident that remains unsolved until the end of the book and is the catalyst for Ben’s transition from childhood. As far as beginnings go, this is a good one. It grabs the reader with an event that every child—indeed, everyone—can relate to. The story then drifts away from this dramatic beginning while Visman paints a picture of 1950s life and introduces various characters: Ben’s friends, his nemesis, town bully, Knobbly Clark and others.
While the glimpses of everyday 1950s life are interesting much of the first fifty pages or so is merely filler. For example: readers are treated to a lengthy tour of the local shop, what it sells, who shops there etc. Those who enjoy touring days gone by will no doubt see no problem with this. However, as a result much of the tension created by various problems in Ben’s life is diluted. Rather than being a heart racing jog, the plot becomes at times a meandering stroll—even after the stakes are raised. Given the generally short attention span of the intended audience, this might prove problematic for some.
Apart from the mystery of who the hit and run driver responsible for Ben’s dad’s death is, there is the smaller mystery of who caused the destruction of Ben’s bike. A good portion of the book seems to rely heavily on this rather than the more intriguing opening mystery. I don’t feel this whodunit generates enough interest to drive the plot forward. Readers are told by narrator Ben that he loves his bike and needs in order to enter a race, but I had no sense that this was particularly important. What is important is the cause of Ben’s father’s death, yet Visman chose to let this fall by the wayside for many pages. Only when Ben and mate Joe stumble on a sports car submerged in the river near where the hit and run occurred, does the story begin to pick up pace. It seems certain to Ben when the car is dragged out of the water and his father’s glasses are recovered, that this is indeed the vehicle responsible for the accident. Ben vows to solve the crime, which, for the past year the police have failed to do. And with dogged determination he does just that.
Despite my concern that both narrative and dialogue is often overly wordy (the story would have to be in the vicinity of 60,000-70,000 words), it is essentially an enjoyable and heart-felt read. Visman has done well to replicate the language and mindset of the time. Her characters are for the most part three-dimensional and believable. I particularly like the relationship between Ben and Joe. Both boys are victims of bullying and discrimination due to their immigrant parents, yet each possesses a solid moral code and respect for others that, especially given their hardships, is to be admired.
“You there, Ben.”
“I’m here Joe.”
I stood up again, breathing a sigh of relief. As soon as the big door was open enough, Scooter raced through it and leapt up at me.
“Oh, shit, Scooter. My arm!”
I tried to hold him with my good arm, but he slipped out and landed on the floor. I squatted, and he covered my face in frantic licks. I laughed, pushing him down and rubbing his belly.
“Take it easy, Scoot! You’ll wash me away!”
The door opened fully and bright sunlight flooded in. Several silhouettes appeared, backlit by the glare. I squinted as one came towards me.
“Where are you Ben” Is dark in here.”
“Here Joe.” I grasped his arm. “Great to see you, mate.”
“Yeah, just a bit hot. Could do with a drink.” (From p 221)
It must be said that there is some language in this book that will be seen as offensive by some—not to mention a cringe-worthy scene where a teacher brutally beats Ben. Aside from the swearing, this scene and others like it raise pertinent issues regarding discrimination and bullying, which, unfortunately, are as relevant today as they were five decades ago.
One issue that I feel could and perhaps should have been explored in more detail is Ben’s grief. Through first-person narration we learn that naturally he is devastated by the loss of his father, but I didn’t see this reflected in Ben’s day to day life. As touched on earlier, it seems that for the first half of the story Ben was more bothered by his bike being run over than by his father’s accident. If Visman had painted a fuller picture of the boy’s grief, the shadow it cast over his life and how it shaped his decisions, I believe the story would have been much stronger. Also, the added emotional input would have carried the plot far better than the mystery of who left the bike on the road.
Despite, and perhaps because of all I’ve written above, I urge young readers to buy Ben’s Challenge. Ben’s relationships and eventual uncovering of the perpetrators of not one, but two crimes makes this title well worth investing time in.
About the reviewer: Jenny Mounfield is the author of three novels and several short stories for young people. She has reviewed kids’ and YA fiction since 2006, her reviews appearing both online and in print. She lives in south-east Queensland with her husband and three grown children.