The exact time and place are not specified in The Whipping Boy. The story takes place during an era of powdered wigs and highwaymen, by inference the latter half of the eighteenth century. The action moves from the royal castle to the countryside. Two boys, Jemmy and Prince Horace (known throughout the kingdom as Prince Brat), are taken captive by highwaymen and brought to a squalid hut in a forest. After escaping they return to the city along with a potato man who hopes to sell his wares at a fair. From there, with the two cutthroats in close pursuit, they take refuge in the city sewers. The story ends as they return to the royal castle to face the king.
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Fleischman first came upon the idea for The Whipping Boy while doing historical research. Fleischman is a tireless researcher, and the backgrounds of his stories are always authentic. He prefers to set his stories in the past. His tall tales are faithful to the customs and speech patterns of the western frontier; McBroom and his family are pioneers from Connecticut who settle in Iowa. For The Whipping Boy Fleischman did a great deal of background reading, including Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor (1851-1862).
Fleischman says he made his sentences as simple as possible. The prose is economically structured, and the imagery is fresh. For example, on the night the boys run away "the moon gazed down like an evil eye," giving a sense of foreboding of the dangerous times ahead. The plotting is ingenious. As Hold-Your-Nose Billy and Cutwater close in on the two hiding boys, the prince hurls a birdcage into the sewer tunnel leading to the granarythe home of voracious rats. The highwaymen rush into the tunnel only to rush back out screaming, with scores of rats clinging to their bodies. When the need arises, the prince shows himself to be as resourceful as Jemmy.
The Whipping Boy incorporates techniques found in fairy tales. In fairy tales, the good characters triumph over the evil ones, who are suitably punished. The Whipping Boy ends with Hold-Your- Nose Billy and Cutwater on their way to a convict...
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When he read about whipping boys in the course of his research, Fleischman felt an indignation that kept him working at a difficult project. He felt he had to tell the story of a whipping boy and his prince because he believed that both were victims of institutionalized injustice. The prince was a victim of excess privilege, the whipping boy had no privilege at all.
Throughout history children have been victimized. A child like Jemmy is particularly helpless because of his poverty. But Fleischman's sympathy extends to children of all classes who are powerless to defend themselves. Through his position as whipping boy, Jemmy comes to understand why Prince Horace is so bored. Neither the energy nor the imagination of a growing boy are given adequate scope under his princely restrictions.
Fleischman drew some of his material from Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor. While this book focuses on the situation in mid- Victorian England, it vividly details two hundred years of poverty in London, and reveals that poverty imposes similarly deadening lifestyles whatever the era.
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Topics for Discussion
1. The Whipping Boy is set in some indefinite period before industrialization. How has life on the street changed since then? Would Jemmy feel at home in a modern American city?
2. The boys often speak or think about their fathers. Why are Jemmy's mother and the queen never mentioned?
3. Humor is not easy to define. What, in your opinion, is the funniest episode in this book? Why would you say it is funny?
4. In the opening chapter, how does Fleischman demonstrate the absurdity of The Whipping Boy convention?
5. To what extent is this book a defense of democracy? Class systems arise in any society, but what is the author's attitude toward them?
6. Is Jemmy the leading character in this story, or does he share the lead with the prince?
7. How does Fleischman give his narrative the rapid pace that young readers demand?
8. Fleischman is adept in creating imagery to make his stories more vivid. Find examples of this in The Whipping Boy. Does he use cliches?
9. Characterize the two highwaymen, Hold-Your-Nose Billy and Cutwater. How has Fleischman made them both comic and threatening at the same time?
10. As the story ends are there any indications that Prince Horace will be a good king when he succeeds his father? What do you think will become of Jemmy?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Read Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper. In Twain's book Prince Edward goes out alone into the streets of London and must deal with situations that nothing in his experience has prepared him for. Do Twain's purposes differ from those of Fleischman? How?
2. In the thirty books he has written for young readers, Fleischman has made a reputation as an outstanding humorist. He is especially good in a traditionally American type of narrative, the tall tale. Read some of his stories about Josh McBroom. Are there any similarities with The Whipping Boy? How do these stories compare with nineteenth-century tall tales such as Mark Twain's "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" (1865)?
3. Urban street life has always fascinated readers, many of whom find criminals especially interesting. Research the lives of real-life highwaymen, rat-catchers, and street vendors in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England. You might consult Henry Mayhew, Charles Dickens, Daniel Defoe, and social and economic histories. How accurate is Fleischman's portrayal of London street life?
4. Some critics have pointed out that The Whipping Boy is very much like a fairy tale in the way it is plotted. Does it seem that way to you? Compare the endings of stories by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen with the conclusion of The Whipping Boy. Are other parts of the story similar to a fairy tale?
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The Whipping Boy is unique among Fleischman's books, but all of his stories display an ingenious wit and a fine ear for dialogue. The American tall tale was not devised exclusively for young adults, and Fleischman's stories should amuse readers of all ages. Josh McBroom and his neighbor, Heck Jones, are marvelously comic creations. Tall, lean, and gleeful over his own cleverness, Jones is a rural con man who originally sold McBroom an acre of worthless swamp land that McBroom has turned into an incredibly fertile farm. All of Jones's schemes are now devoted to getting that land back. McBroom always reports the most outrageous exaggerations in a serious manner.
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For Further Reference
Bradburn, Frances. "Review." Wilson Library Bulletin 61 (April 1987): 48. This review of The Whipping Boy praises Fleischman's skill in presenting his serious objectives without moralizing.
Court, W. H. B. A Concise Economic History of England: From 1750 to Recent Times. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967. This history discusses the continuing poverty in England during the rise of the Industrial Revolution. Henry Mayhew knew the situation well, but many preferred to believe that poverty no longer existed.
Fleischman, Albert Sidney. "Laughter and Children's Literature." Horn Book 52 (October 1976): 465-470. Fleischman feels that good humorous children's literature is rare...
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