Ordinary Jack

by Helen Cresswell

Cover image

Series: Bagthorpe Saga #1
Publisher: Hodder
Copyright: 1977
Printing: 1998
ISBN: 0-340-71651-7
Format: Mass market
Pages: 231

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This is not even close to the first time I've read this book, although it's been about fifteen years. Helen Cresswell's Bagthorpe books about a wildly eccentric British family and their daily adventures were some of my favorite books as a child. I must have read this book in particular at least a half-dozen times, checking it out of the local library. I've been keeping an eye out for copies for a while, which is far harder than it should be. The Bagthorpes were apparently popular enough in Britain to have spawned a children's television adaptation on the BBC, but they're practically unheard of in the US.

Jack is the second-youngest of four kids and is surrounded by geniuses. All of his siblings have multiple Strings to their Bows, whether it be music, electronics, mathematics, or painting, except for him. Finally fed up with this, he hatches a plot with his Uncle Parker to make them all believe that he is truly unusual.

Ordinary Jack is the first of the series, and I think the weakest because of it. Cresswell's wonderfully witty and dry sense of humor, the whole point to the Bagthorpe Saga, is already quite present, but the overall plot always leaves me vaguely unsatisfied. While there's plenty of opportunity for funny things to happen, the story itself is not that funny and doesn't have the same degree of charm and chaos as some of the later books.

It does, however, feature the first appearance of a bit that I have always remembered and which remains a standing joke between my mother and I:

Jack said nothing. He was well acquainted with Uncle Parker's theories about other drivers. Uncle Parker put all drivers other than himself into one of various categories, none of them flattering. Rock bottom of these, Jack knew, was the Hat Category.

"The minute you get behind a Hat," Uncle Parker would say, "you know you're finished. Doesn't matter whether it's a man or a woman. And a Flat Cap — you get behind a Flat Cap and you might as well reverse back to where you started and try an alternate route."

It's true, too. I've seen it proven on multiple occasions.

Humor is particularly difficult to review, since it's such a matter of personal taste, and Cresswell's humor is particularly hard to capture. The book revolves around setting up situations that are just a little slanted and larger than life and then having both the characters and the narrator deal with them in an understated, matter-of-fact manner that turns into a perfect dry jape. It works wonderfully well for me, and may fall completely flat for you. If you see a copy, though, give it a try; if your sense of humor turns out to match mine, you'll quite enjoy it.

Followed by Absolute Zero.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2004-12-01

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21