Everyone says Big Pete Kowalski is a good guy, widowed with four kids yet never once asking for help. His 11-year-old son, Max, wants to be just like him when he grows up. Max, however, is already carrying a man-size burden, caring for his three little sisters while his dad works long shifts. Max Kowalski Didn’t Mean It by Susie Day charts events when Big Pete suddenly disappears. In this distinctive and engaging novel, Max and his siblings are plunged into an adventure that will take them from Southend Pier to the mystical Welsh mountains.
Struggling to financially support his family, Big Pete is tempted into some shady dealings, the culmination of which forces him to flee home, leaving Max with £200 cash and instructions to step up and be a big man. Some days later, after a near miss with a police officer and the dwindling of their funds to a paltry £6.07, Max concludes that they must choose between starving to death, being taken into care, or running far far away.
Best friend, Elis, has a vacant family cottage in Wales, and crucially it’s hundreds of miles from the kids’ home of Southend. This is how we find the plucky quartet on the torturously lengthy journey via Euston Station to Betws-y-Coed.
I enjoyed the Blytonesque touches to this exciting story, stoicism and self-sufficiency celebrated as the kids navigate the Welsh countryside, shack up in the chilly, somewhat ramshackle cottage, and heartily enjoy a kindly neighbour’s gift of bread, cheese, and some ‘sugared rounds.’ The themes however, move way beyond one-dimensional Blyton, encompassing bereavement and notions of masculinity and parenting.
This being Wales, ‘there be dragons’ to be confronted, and here the story takes a delicious turn for the mystical, as Max is drawn into a quest for gold and the slaying of his own dragon, the one that has haunted his childhood.
An unusual and memorable read.
Max Kowalski Didn’t Mean It by Susie Day is published by Puffin, 256 pages.