Boy 11963: Don’t prejudge this book – you’ll be pleasantly surprised

Book review: John Cameron’s unique story of a childhood in Artane industrial school and search for his family

Artane industrial school, where John Cameron was sent when he was eight years old. Photograph:  Independent News And Media/Getty

Artane industrial school, where John Cameron was sent when he was eight years old. Photograph: Independent News And Media/Getty

The story of a childhood spent in the notorious Artane industrial school mightn’t be top of everyone’s reading list. We know this awful story already and we’re looking for escapism, frivolity even, rather than dark reality in these difficult times. Boy 11963, however, teaches a sharp lesson: never prejudge a book. This one proved to be one of the biggest and most pleasant surprises of my reading life.

It is a book of two halves, both written in novel form. Part one tells the tale of Johnny Cameron up to the point of first contact with a member of his family of origin, when he’s in his 60s. Fostered in Stepaside by the Mulligan family, young Johnny is neglected and abused by the violent drunk that is Mr Mulligan, the indifferent Mrs Mulligan and their wilfully cruel adult daughter. Dinner, if provided at all, is bread and dripping served at the back door and bedding is straw and sacking in a shed.

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