Spud, by John van de Ruit
$11.55 at Amazon.com
Set in a boys' boarding school in South Africa during the last days of Apartheid, Spud is a story about growing up. It's written in a diary-style format, which makes it an easy read thanks to plenty of friendly blank space on every page.
John Milton is thirteen. He has a neurotic family including a senile grandmother named Wombat, and a father who's frequently in trouble with the law for his strange and confrontational behavior. In the first chapter, dad turns his power washer on the neighbor's noisy dog. Additionally, they're poor and rather tacky by prep school standards. Naturally, John is mortified.
He's nicknamed Spud by his classmates because his still hairless scrotum resembles a new potato. Apparently he's something of a late bloomer. In spite of these setbacks, he's a lovable kid who wins the respect of his school chums and the affection of a young lady he's nicknamed "the Mermaid". Ah, young love.
One review I read described this book as the Catcher in the Rye of South Africa. Unlike Holden Caulfield, however, Spud is not an asshole.
He deals with all the classic traumas of boyhood. Evidently in this part of the world, boys are whipped for misbehaving at school, which he does from time to time. He auditions for a play, gets taunted by bullies, learns about girls, and has a roommate with some serious mental problems.
All of this is set against the backdrop of Nelson Mandela being released from prison. There's a general consensus among the country's white elites that this signals the beginning of the end for civilization in South Africa. Spud reserves his judgement, adopting a sensible "wait and see" attitude. Smart boy.
This book comes highly recommended. Not only is it an outstanding coming-of-age story, but it also gave me a lot of insight into the lives of whites living in the Dark Continent. Its teen angst is up to date: it includes learning disorders, racial tension, and suicide attempts. Somehow, Spud still manages to tell an upbeat story with a delightful boy who's sure to grow into an amazing man.
The promise of youth and optimism for a bright future shine on every page. Don't miss this one, in ten years it'll be a universal classic.