The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts by Newbery Medal winner Avi follows a few exceptionally bad days in the life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts, a bright, cheery, fleet-footed 12-year-old beset on all sides.
From the first pages it’s clear that the world has conspired against Oliver. His mother died when he was a small child, leaving him in the care of his wholly negligent father, who has abandoned him without a shilling to his name and no indication of when he may return. With his father away, the local religious and government authorities—all of whom are scoundrels, thieves or cheats—take it upon themselves to ensure Oliver is locked away in the poorhouse. And all this occurs before Oliver becomes entangled in an armed robbery and indebted to the most notorious criminal in all of England.
Given the sheer number of nefarious characters Oliver encounters, the story never lags. But after 300 pages of one enemy materializing after another, of one narrow escape following upon the next, the incessant drama begins to feel excessive. Despite an overabundance of external conflict, The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts as a whole succeeds due to Avi’s authorial prowess. His nimble turns of phrase, his lean yet heavily descriptive prose and, perhaps most centrally, the inimitable voice he has crafted for his narrator save this novel from a fate as bleak as its protagonist’s.