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The Loblolly Boy, James Norcliffe

June 13, 2011

The Loblolly Boy Book blurb

The Loblolly Boy First Page


The house was now completely empty. The furniture removal men had carried everything outside and loaded it into the huge truck parked in the drive. Packers had been in to his room and packed his entire life into large cardboard cartons. His clothes, his books, his board games. The football boots, tennis raquets and hockey sticks were all stowed away. The men had packed his pictures. One woman had pulled his posters off the wall leaving little blue stains where the Blu Tack had been. His posters of steam locomotives were gone. There was no longer a black and white poster of Charlie Chaplin sitting miserably on a broken down stoop with a white dog beside him. The picture was from a film called A Dog’s Life. He’d never seen it, but he didn’t have to: he knew about dogs’ lives. It was what he’d been leading ever since the woman, Janice, came into his father’s life.

Then the removal men had taken away the furniture. His bed. His dresser. The empty bookshelves.

Without all his stuff, his room felt very strange. Bigger in some ways, smaller in others. There was also an unpleasant echoing emptiness that made him want to whisper.”

[p7, James Norcliffe (2009) The Loblolly Boy.  Longacre Press: Dunedin.]  NOTE: there is an extract of this book (the start of chapter one)  freely available online.

You can also hear the audio adaptation on Radio National:

Themes in the novel


Possible directions for study/questions to apply to The Loblolly Boy:


Characterisation and relationships in the novel:

  • Of Red’s transformation into the loblolly boy (with his abilities to fly and be invisible), Janice Rodrigues writes that “the perplexities of being this character soon confront Red and force him to question his permanence as the Loblolly Boy.”  What are the perplexities of ‘being this character’?  It’s such a lovely phrase – and absolutely one worth taking deeper.
  • Similarly, Boomerang Books writes that the loblolly boy “is a magical being. He can fly on his beautiful green wings. He’s invisible to most people. He can be seen, but only by certain special people called Sensitives. And most amazing of all, if he chooses to, he can Exchange–you become the loblolly boy, and he becomes you! Michael is living in the Great House for unwanted children when he meets the loblolly boy, and Exchanges with him to escape his miserable life. It is only then that he discovers that while the life of the loblolly boy has its own magic, it also has its own restrictions, rules, and deadly dangers. James Norcliffe’s The Loblolly Boy is a unique fantasy adventure, built around the ideas of identity and actions having consequences, both intended and unintended.” In what ways do actions have consequences in this novel?
  • How do the loblolly boys’ actions define them? In the novel, how do one’s actions lead to consequences, that in turn, determine a character’s (or his community’s) fate?
  • Indeed, do actions have consequences in this novel? What about innate characteristics?  What of the travellers’ inherent abilities; their ‘nature’? How do the their ‘natures’ determine their fate?
  • What about each character’s empathy for others and for the world around them? ‘he sees only what he wants to see
  • Are these characters strong/weak?… (how do you know this?) How does this shape the story being told? If strong – where do they get their strength from; if weak – where does this come from?
  • Where do the main characters’ strengths/weaknesses come from/lie? Are they social, physical, internal, familial, communal, economic, spiritual, etc.? Do the characters have imagination, ‘inherent’ abilities, ‘taught’/’learned’ skills, ‘personalities’ to draw on…?
  • The ability to fly is great, but it comes at a price.  To be a loblolly boy means to be invisible to most people and to have no social contact; to leave no footprints. When the Captain tells the loblolly Boy (Red) this, he asserts that “Real people need to leave footprints. It’s a comfort, a reassurance that they are part of the world. A reassurance a loblolly boy doesn’t have.” (p60) What purpose does this metaphor serve? What ideas does it bring in to play?
  • The novel contains certain cultural ideas about the social importance of the individual.  Thinking this through, for me, starts with identifying the fact that there are a number of sayings about leaving only footprints in the sand or leaving footprints on a person’s heart, etc. How do these sayings shape the reader’s understanding of this idea that ‘a loblolly boy (who has chosen not to be himself/herself) can leave no social footprint’? Is there a meaningful connection between the idea of ‘being true to yourself’ and your capacity to ‘make a difference in the lives of others’? Does the loblolly boy’s makeup stem from some cultural understanding of the role of the individual in society? On the same note: there are also many sayings about flying that connect flight/wings with freedom… I haven’t thought this idea out -it’s just a suggestion
  • What is suggested when the loblolly boy, as narrator, says “part [of me] said that with only my version of the story it somehow wouldn’t be the real story” (p188)?
  • How do the loblolly boy’s relationships impact on the course of events; on the possibilities open to him?   What is the message the reader takes from the relationships and their development in this novel?
  • The loblolly boy’s happy ending, in his own words, ‘depends on the girls’ (his twin sisters), p208.  In the end, Red’s mother also fights on his behalf, taking on the Superintendent to get Red released into her loving care (p216). The novel thus ends with a reassuring message about the nature of families (the strength, loyalty and security they ultimately provide – even to an outcast in an orphanage). What other ideas about ‘family’ are to be found in this novel? How do these ideas tie to the message that ‘the grass is not always greener on the other side’?
  • What changes does Captain Bass effect? How? What abilities/traits does the captain have that assist him to make a difference in the loblolly boy’s life(lives)?
  • What kind of authority does Captain Bass represent?
  • Who is/are the villain(s)? What makes them villainous? What traits, behaviours, looks, abilities, desires, attitudes, etc?
  • What is threatened in this story? What is the problem? How is it resolved (is it?)?
  • What does Jason and Veronica’s story teach the reader about ‘how things work’ in this world? It unfolds early in the novel and doesn’t directly influence the loblolly boy’s ‘story’, so why include it; what does it demonstrate to the reader? What importance does their experience have for the loblolly boy?
  • What characters are added to the tale in the form of the twins’ mother, or Old Ma Tasker, or the Keepers or the Superintendent of the Great House? What role do these characters play?
  • What do the ‘adults’ of the story, as characters, communicate about society? What restrictions are placed on them as adults?
  • In what way are the adults in the novel enabled, as adults, to influence the course of events? Do the children have similar capacities? What power structures are evident?
  • What possibilities are inherent in the characters of the children, as characters? What difficulties do they face? What restrictions are place on them as children? What expectations?
  • What makes this loblolly boy different to his predecessors?

What drives the story?

  • Why start with this prologue? How does it serve to guide the reader through the rest of the story? What does it set up that couldn’t happen by simply starting at chapter one? I think it is worth noting that The Loblolly Boy and the Sorcerer starts in the same way; with another loblolly boy’s tale. I am thinking that part of this structure is tied to the idea that ‘our’ stories are all connected and interdependent rather than happening in parallel isolation; each loblolly boy’s story has a knock-on effect and their difficulties impact on each other.
  • Similarly, what purpose does the final chapter, a kind of epilogue, titled ‘envoi’, serve? My feeling is that these chapters create a sense of the ‘knock-on’ effect of each loblolly boy’s choices that reinforces the moral of the tale…
  • So… Why does this story happen? Are the events of the novel driven by fate, or personal ambition, or by a higher power, or individual actions…?  Particularly in the Captain’s cottage, a number of philosophical statements are made in this regard and I’m wondering what drives events in The Loblolly Boy? Consider, for example, when the Captain looks back at the loblolly boy after Jason and Veronica become seals: “His eyes were very old. ‘Don’t take it so hard, loblolly boy,’ he said. ‘These things happen.'” (p55) …or… “The telescope brought the future closer, the things I had seen through its lens were part of my future. There was no need to actively seek them. They would find me, sooner or later.” (p80) …or… when the Captain explains the telescope’s vision to the loblolly boy: “All I know is that you will see them some time in the future. That’s what the telescope tells you. Whether you will become one of them or not, I have no idea. That may even be up to you…” (p76)
  • There are a number of sayings brought to mind by this novel: ‘Out of the frying pan, into the fire’, ‘The grass is always greener on the other side’, ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ What role does this folk wisdom play in the motion of events? What about other sayings?
  • What does Captain Bass mean when he tells the loblolly boy that Jason cannot see them inside the hut; that Jason ‘can only see what he wants to see’ (the telescope, not them), and that Jason ‘is on a quest’ (p47)? The Captain also gets angry when he sees the loblolly boy with the future-telling telescope to his eye; “‘I see, loblolly boy,’ he rasped angrily, ‘you are on a Quest as well, are you?'” (p73). What is wrong with this questing, this thirst to know the future … why is it ‘dangerous’ (p73)?
  • How can you be ‘tricked out of your real existence’, as the loblolly boy apparently has been (p47)? How can the loblolly boy be ‘not in the real world’ (p46)? Is identity fixed in this novel? Is it part of who we are or part of our environment? The conversations between the loblolly boy and the captain are deliberately philosophic, but what ideas do these discussions capture? It is worth picking them apart and placing the ideas alongside the ‘creation’ of a loblolly boy, as well as the unfolding of events in Red’s story.
  • Does the loblolly boy’s knowledge of himself change over the course of the novel? What about his understanding of the world? Does he grow?
  • What lessons does the loblolly boy, ‘Red’, learn? What about the other loblolly boys? The Collector? Captain Bass? The mother? Who learns and grows and changes? Who doesn’t? Do they fall into distinct groups?

Place in the novel:

  • Is there a strong sense of place in this novel?
  • How important is the setting to the story told?
  • How clearly is the ‘Great House’ described? To what purpose? How does it contrast with the Captain’s shack, or the twin’s home? How do these settings compare and contrast? How do they support the story being told (a story which sees a small boy find his family and his rightful place in life, as it were)?


  • Is this a coming-of-age story? What makes it so? What is maturity in this novel? What signals adulthood/independence?


  • What about Peter Pan? In America, this book is even published as ‘the boy who could fly’. A reader surely can’t help but make the connection, so what connection is there? metaphorically? in terms of hope? in terms of individual responsibility? in terms of growing up and accepting your place in society – and ‘who you are’ perhaps?


  • Note that there is an etymology to the term ‘loblolly boy’ that may prove revealing  ( a writer in the Atlanta Journal Magazine conjectured on the word’s history, noting that it was an onomatopoeic word, writing: “…the word loblolly, which describes a semi-liquid state, a good word. The word itself shakes in pronunciation like jelly, which is most nearly what it describes.”  Indeed, this idea does connect interestingly with the loblolly boy of Norcliffe’s novel… How does this inform our understanding of the loblolly character and his nature? Does this change his relationship with the Captain (Bass)?
  • How much is in the future tense, the past, the present? to what effect?
  • How could this novel be written differently? For example, if the crux of the story is ‘live in another’s shoes for a day and you’ll see it’s not as great as it appears’, how does a first-person narrative support such an experience? What would a third-person narrative do to this tale?
  • Consider the third-person narrative of the prologue and epilogue… the shift ‘makes sense’ to a degree, because Red is not experiencing these events, but how is this story separate/different?
  • What do we know of each of these characters? And when are we given this information? Is it inherent in their physical descriptions… and natures? Are people what they ‘seem’?
As always, this is just a start… as I think of things to add, it will show up under the James Norcliffe or Loblolly Boy tags, to be found in the word cloud to the right.

Texts that invite comparison

Basically forthcoming…

Start with the next in the series (?), of course… There is another ‘loblolly’ book – The Loblolly Boy and the Sorcerer.

Peter Pan has already been mentioned by reviewers….

How to use this blog

Mindmaps help me think critically.  They help me see the links between things and plot a course through all the observations and questions that a text provokes when I read it ‘as a text.’  This blog is a mindmap of sorts; full of random thoughts and relevant-seeming quotations or ideas.

  • There is a tag cloud to the right of the blog, which shows the topics I am exploring as ‘tags.’
  • You can also use the search bar at the bottom of the page to see if a particular word/book/author/theme is mentioned.
  • Each time I bring a NZ author into the discussion for the first time, I add an “Introducing the author” blog. This is easily found at the beginning of the section under that author.
  • I have a section titled ‘Blog Notes’ in which I explain my blogging style.
  • I have a ‘Literary Resources’ section which includes general ideas on literature and its study as well as the questions I apply to any text I study.
  • These questions (eg. Character Questions) may be useful to any other reader wishing to look at this text differently (refer to very early on in the blogging history of this section).
  • I absolutely welcome discussion: comments, suggestions, ideas, criticisms… please do!

Norcliffe’s Loblolly Boy: a History

Awards won:  

Winner Junior Fiction Award at the New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards, 2010.

Shortlisted for 2010 LIANZA Esther Glen Medal.

Shortlisted for 2010 Sir Julius Vogel Award

Storylines Notable Book, 2010 

Publishing History:

First published by Longacre Press (now owned by Random House), 2009, it was published as The Boy Who Could Fly in the States. It is available as an audio book.

There is a sequel (?), The Loblolly Boy and the Sorcerer, though I haven’t yet read it.

Bibliography of secondary literature:

Author information:

Refer earlier blog: Introducing James Norcliffe  

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