Published in 1963, Stig of the Dump is widely considered to be a children’s classic, and having just finished reading this with Toby, I am more than satisfied that it deserves its classic status.
It’s a relatively simple plot about a boy (Barney) who is staying with his grandmother during the summer holidays and who befriends a cave man he discovers living in a dump at the end of his grandmother’s garden but as with the best literary fiction, the book operates on many levels and taps into multiple themes.
Part of the book’s magic is wondering if Stig is real or a figment of Barney’s imagination or not – I kept changing my mind throughout, and it was a regular discussion point throughout the story. There is never any explanation for Stig’s presence, which I think adds to the book’s charm. As an adult I have to learn to simply suspend disbelief, which is something that a young reader will do far more readily.
I worried at times that the detailed and descriptive prose failed to capture my six-year-old’s attention and at times my reading of the beautifully written passages had a soporific effect on the young listener (never too bad a thing as a far as a parent is concerned!). However, Toby’s memories of the details of the book where usually sharper than mine; I was pretty astonished that he’d been listening as quite a lot of fidgeting had been going on!
The chapter that most held his attention was the one about the Snargets – a group of badly behaved boys from the wrong side of the tracks – who Barney had a run-in with. Stig of course came to the rescue and upon meeting the cavemen, the Snargets discover respect for Barney. This chapter was one of the highlights for Toby as it contained the right mix of humour and action to keep a boy engrossed.
What disappointed me about this chapter, however, was the stereotypical portrayal of the Snargets as a poor family with working class accents who get into trouble. This is a very middle class book, and all the “baddies” in the book possess working class accents, and it did occur to me that this books and many other similar children’s classics of the time don’t do a great job of portraying kids from different socio-economic groups. I don’t meant to get all “PC” but how can children enjoy reading if the people like them are the ones you’re not meant to like or sympathise with. The Snargets turn out all right in the end, of course, but it’s one of the moments in the book where I could see that life and society had evolved since it had first been published.
Another segment that would feel out of place in a contemporary novel is the part when Barney’s sister Lou gets excited because she’s been invited to a fox hunt. There are also references to smoking! Although the author has introduced these he cleverly and subtly expresses disapproval for these activities through characters’ reactions.
There are other times when the novel feels remarkably ahead of its times. Stig’s talents for turning other people’s rubbish into new objects is an unintentional life lesson on recycling. Could there be a more relevant theme for today’s young readers?!
Much of the book goes into painstaking detail about the activities that Stig teaches Barney and vice versa. I couldn’t help thinking that this would appeal to the Minecraft generation – survival skills, building things from scratch and hunting all form a key part of this book. So if you have a young boy at home who you’re struggling to tear away from a screen, then introduce Stig of the Dump, and stick with it. It has an uncanny way of getting into a boy’s psyche.
So here are the scores:
Read-aloud-ability: 3/5 – long descriptive sentences and many unfamiliar words had me stuttering a bit after a hard day’s work!
Fun factor: 3/5
Fidget factor: 4/5
Fear factor: 3/5
Page turnability: 2/5
Mum’s final score: 8/10 – a slow burner that is worth persevering with. It’s beautifully written and will be worthy of repeat reads for many years to come.
Toby’s final score: 10/10 – not sure he’s giving much though to the scoring but it had some funny and thrilling moments for him, and I know it will stay with him for a wee while.