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King of the Pygmies

Review

King of the Pygmies

Fifteen-year-old Penfold (Penn) has lived in the working-class
town of Havre-de-Grace, Maryland, his whole life. What's more, his
family has lived in the town as long as anyone can remember. Penn
might not be the best student or the smartest kid in his class, but
he knows one thing --- tough old Havre-de-Grace is about the last
place where miracles might happen.


Soon enough, though, plenty of unexpected things are happening to
Penn. For one thing, Daisy, the smartest girl in his class,
actually seems interested in Penn, despite his loser friends and
his mentally challenged older brother. Penn is over the moon about
Daisy, so much so that he doesn't mind making a fool of himself
with his clueless questions about her Chinese heritage (she's
actually Filipino).


He's less thrilled about the other unexplained development, though
--- in fact, he's pretty scared. Out of the blue, Penn is hearing
voices, voices no one else seems to hear. Is he going crazy? Or is
something else going on?


Penn's parents take him to a less-than-helpful psychiatrist who
diagnoses him with schizophrenia. He wants to give Penn medication,
but Penn is not so sure. Penn's uncle Hewitt, the town's former
police chief who's been troubled (and mostly drunk) since his
wife's death, tells Penn that there's more to the voices than what
the doctor says.


It turns out, according to uncle Hewitt, that the voices in Penn's
head aren't just random; instead, they're the actual thoughts of
people around him. Penn hears his mother worrying about his
father's weight. He hears his brother's frustrations. He hears his
neighbor's despair after her husband's death. According to Uncle
Hewitt, Penn has a great gift, a gift that makes him part of a
chosen few --- the Pygmies. Is Penn really sick, or can he use his
gift to help others?


On the surface of things, many readers may take issue with Jonathon
Scott Fuqua's depiction of schizophrenia, which at times seems to
trivialize or even discount the severity of much mental illness.
Fuqua's approach may also remind some of the movie The Fisher
King
, which took much the same fantastical approach to mental
illness. In a lengthy author's note at the book's end, though,
Fuqua explains his reasoning: he wants to depict an individual who,
like many often overlooked people, is able to function at a high
level while still coping with schizophrenia.


Although Fuqua does do an admirable job of humanizing this
condition, he does so at the expense of the psychiatric profession
and, some might say, at the expense of other individuals who might
really need professional help. Nevertheless, KING OF THE PYGMIES is
worth reading and discussing, as it is one of too-few teen novels
that deal compassionately (if not entirely realistically) with
mental illness.


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Reviewed by Norah Piehl on October 18, 2011

King of the Pygmies
by Jonathon Scott Fuqua

  • Publication Date: October 11, 2005
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Candlewick
  • ISBN-10: 0763614181
  • ISBN-13: 9780763614188