In a brief note at the end of the book, Sid Fleischman assures us that keeping a "whipping boy" really was the practice of some long ago monarchs. What is a whipping boy? Apparently, it was a peasant kept on hand to receive the punishment that would otherwise be administered to the prince, who deserved the beating.
This is a bit of a distortion of reality, though to be fair The Whipping Boy is a fantasy story. Real whipping boys weren't peasants—they were boys of limited station who received their education and training alongside their prince, and were often the only friend the prince had. Some of them were even given important stations at court when the prince became king.
Fleischman's version involves Jemmy, the deceased rat-catcher's son, plucked from a life in the streets and sewers and forced to take beatings for the incorrigible Prince Horace, a.k.a. Prince Brat. Because the Prince is a brat, Jemmy gets lots of beatings, and there is no bond between them. In fact, there's mutual disrespect and loathing.
But when Horace the Brat runs away, he drags Jemmy along with him. Soon the boys are kidnapped by murderous brigands who hope to capitalize on the Prince's status. Unfortunately the Prince can't write, so in a mixed-up chain of events Jemmy assumes the identity of Horace and pens a ransom note on the boys's own behalf.
A chain of events unfolds in which Jemmy's street smarts, quick wits, and book-learning get the boys out of a number of scrapes, from escaping the clutches of the marauders, to a brush with a fierce dancing bear named Petunia, to riding in Captain Nips's wagon, to running through city sewers.
During the course of these adventures, Brat's own pluck and intelligence begin to emerge, and what was a relationship fueled mainly by resentment gradually becomes a true friendship. Everything ends happily, and we get the impression that Jemmy won't continue in his role as whipping boy, though he will remain in the castle.
One thing never mentioned is the rationale behind whipping boys. In the 16th century, many European monarchs adhered to the doctrine of the divine right of kings, believing that God himself had instated kings, who were thereby holy personages not to be treated commonly. Beating a prince, therefore, was the sole province of the king. Since the king was often absent, it fell to others to both administer and receive the punishment due the future king.
While Fleischman's tale is intended to be a lighthearted romp, this seems like a pretty major oversight. Instead of examining the practice on its own terms, he caricatures the period, leaves out all mention of God (except Jemmy's frequent "Gaw!" profanities), and implies that a little roughing up is all a prince needs to rethink his life and chronically bad behavior.
There's plenty of humor here, and the story is interesting, but there's not a lot of substance. Sure, Jemmy and Horace learn to appreciate each other, but is their friendship a real brotherly bond or simply the result of helping each other survive? Readers will have to decide for themselves, but this 1987 Newbery Medalist isn't the best we've read.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
Did you find this review helpful?