Book Review: The Bully of Barkham Street

Rating: ★☆☆☆☆

Martin is a deeply lonely preadolescent boy who earns a reputation for picking on children smaller than himself.  He is self-absorbed, self-pitying, a compulsive liar, and a thief, and constantly justifies himself when challenged.  This book follows his muted coming-of-age, as he turns from his destructive behavior and attempts to live down his reputation.  His escapades are sometimes funny, but more often embarrassing as his bad behavior brings him humiliation and shame.

Martin’s bad behavior grows out of his deeper problem: his parents are supremely inattentive to his basic relational needs.  Their consistently selfish response toward him at every turn creates a poisonous family dynamic which is the source of his profound loneliness and insecurity.  Early in the story, Martin’s parents allow him to adopt a dog when he promises to reform his behavior, but the promise is so sweeping that it is impossible for him to live up to.  When the dog becomes inconvenient for them, Martin’s parents return it to its former owner, citing Martin’s bad behavior.  Although his father admits that he should not have asked Martin to commit to a standard beyond his abilities, he does not ask for forgiveness but instead urges Martin to be unselfish and think of the dog’s needs.  This scene provokes Martin to hate his parents, as he wonders “if goodness and unselfishness were something that adults talked about when what they really meant was Don’t bother us” (61).

Martin himself never takes responsibility for his own behavior, but rather mysteriously outgrows it by the end of the story.  While he does attain some reasonably admirable accomplishments (maintaining a newspaper route to save money for a saxophone and walking away from a provocation to fight), he never asks forgiveness or makes restitution to people he has injured. The gradual change in his behavior suggests that all along he has wanted to be good and just couldn’t figure out the right technique.  This opposes the biblical doctrine of original sin, which holds that humans are evil by nature.  Martin’s violent, narcissistic behavior may easily be understood as the natural expression of an evil heart (Jeremiah 17:9), but the idea that he is merely a good-hearted, misunderstood boy trying to do the right thing falls far short.

While this story might be valuable for helping children cultivate compassion for the local playground bully, the poisonous character of Martin’s family, and the wishy-washy way in which Martin’s sinful behavior is explained, makes it an unsuitable choice for our family library.

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Publication Information: Stolz, Mary. Bully of Barkham Street, The. Harper & Row. 1963. ISBN: 0064401596. ASIN: B000RBE670.
Categories: 1 Star, Age 08-12, Books That Build Character,
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Posted on July 16, 2009

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