It is 1981 and Leon has just acquired a baby brother, Jake. They are living with their mother, Carol, who is struggling as the father of Jake has shown no interest at all in his son. Just how much she is struggling is made very apparent when Leon turns up at a friend of hers asking for money for sweets. Tina goes back home with him to find Carol a nervous wreck and in need of help. As she gets the medical attention that she desperately needs Leon and Jake are placed into care.
Their new ‘mum’ is Maureen, a red-haired older woman with a heart of gold, but as good as a job as she does with them both, Leon knows that it is not the same as having your mum there. Life is about to change again; Leon is half-cast and Jake is white so social services decide that Jake will be suitable for adoption. Jake is adopted fairly quickly and Leon loses his final family member and feels very alone.
Just when he is at his lowest ebb and doesn’t think it can get any worse, Maureen is taken seriously ill and admitted to hospital. Leon moves to her sister Sylvia’s house and has another bedroom and routine to get used to. He is now a little older and gets given a bike that means that he can travel and explore the local area. It is on these jaunts out that he discovers the local allotments and the men that frequent this place, Me Devlin and Tufty and the wonders that exist in their sheds. As exciting as these places are, what he really wants is to find Jake and bring them both back to his mum so they can be a family once again.
This heartwarming story deals in a beautiful way with a whole raft of issues from race to identity, belonging and the care systems in the 1980’s. It is full of happy and sad moments, as Leon comes up against a care system that didn’t want to keep families together at that time. Whilst de Waal has written this story of Leon with passion and care, it is not a sugar-coated tale either. The 1980’s references of events and objects are tempered by the visible racial tension in the prose between the police and the local residents. Would highly recommend this to anyone wanting a story from the perspective of most people’s lives back in those days.