Adrienne Kress's Alex and the Ironic Gentleman
Children's book review by Sarah Denslow
Alex and the Ironic Gentleman is a primarily episodic adventure novel featuring piracy, fencing lessons, and the Extremely Ginormous Octopus. I picked up this book primarily because I found the title so striking; I was even more intrigued to find that “The Ironic Gentleman” is the name of one of the most feared pirate ships on the seas.
The novel proved to be a very enjoyable read. Alex, the heroine of the novel (though she is often mistaken for a boy due to her haircut), is a smart, but rather unpopular and often overlooked sixth grader. An orphan, she lives with her great uncle who runs a doorknob shop. Although she is a bright student and fond of learning, she has been disappointed by her past school teachers. However, she quickly makes friends with her new sixth grade teacher, Mr. Underwood, who is the kind of intelligent, fun teacher that many school children only dream of having. He can and will answer most students’ questions, lets them roast marshmallows over a bonfire when they are studying Joan of Arc, and even teaches them fencing in P.E.
Alex and the Ironic Gentleman
The plot begins to unfold when Alex finds that Mr. Underwood is the heir to an enormous fortune of buried pirate treasure…if only he can find the map. Never one to sit on the sidelines, Alex soon begins to look for the map herself. However, while she is out searching for it (and, of course, actually finding it), pirates kidnap Mr. Underwood. Alex comes home to find that not only has her teacher been spirited away by a particularly nasty group of buccaneers, but also that her uncle has been killed by a falling bookcase of doorknobs.
Left with nothing but a deluge of paperwork given to her by a rather heartless and dimwitted police officer, Alex decides that she must rescue Mr. Underwood, so she embarks on a journey to save him and recover the treasure. Of course, she is also being pursued by a group of crooked old ladies who want to punish her (by making her give them foot massages) for crossing the red rope at the museum they run.
Her journey takes her through a forest where she meets some rather unusual characters. Alex has several mini-adventures with each new group she meets; these shorter stories do not really relate to the main action of the novel, and the characters she meets do not show up again in the book. Still, they are highly imaginative, fun to read and show off Alex’s intelligence and good will.
These adventures also give Kress ample opportunity to employ her quirky style of humor. Though the book seems to be set roughly in our own world and time, Kress does not hesitate to bend reality. Old-fashioned, swash-buckling piracy exists along side sentient refrigerators and an enormous (or rather ginormous) talking octopus. A spontaneous song and dance number, to which the lyrics are provided, breaks out at a hotel. The whimsical elements of the setting keep you on your toes and often laughing, as you never know what Alex might encounter in her journey, while the realistic aspects make Alex and the Ironic Gentleman easy to relate to. Children can easily imagine themselves in Alex’s shoes while still exercising their vivid imaginations.
The humor also serves to minimize the impact of the occasional violent or scary incidents. There are a few murders (it turns out that one of the pirates killed Alex’s uncle and later a pirate is shot) and two somewhat bloody battle scenes. Though Kress does not dwell on these incidents or describe them in detail, they are present. However, between the humor and the presence of the narrator who talks directly to the reader, I think that they would be unlikely to seriously bother a child over eight; if the Lemony Snicket books don’t bother your child, Alex and the Ironic Gentleman shouldn’t either.
Alex and the Ironic Gentleman
As whimsical as this book is, there are some good lessons underlying the plot. Although Alex meets a number of kind, caring, and competent adults, she meets many who are selfish, dim-witted, unjust, or incompetent. Many of them abuse the power that they have, although in small ways, such as the police officer who tries to make Alex fill out an absurd amount of paper work or the old ladies who steal wine from the museum they work in. Alex is often smarter than they are, and indeed manipulates a number of them, though always in a rather benevolent way.
The abundance of adults who treat Alex poorly leads her to seriously consider becoming a pirate toward the end of the novel, primarily because the pirates respect her intelligence and abilities. However, Alex soon comes to see the inherent violence and greed of piracy and realizes that she is not really one of them. Shortly thereafter the adults who really do care for her come to rescue her, and Mr. Underwood, using his excellent fencing skills, even takes on the entire crew of pirates by himself at one point. Children can see that the world, even a magical world, is often unfair and at times scary, but they are encouraged to believe that good does exist and is worth fighting for.
The ending is very happy, if rather sudden. However, as this book is really more of a series of adventures, I did not find the abruptness of the ending to detract from the rest of the novel. I would highly recommend Alex and the Ironic Gentleman to anyone, adult or child, over the age of eight, particularly any child who might feel that adults often underestimate him or her. This would also be a wonderful book to read aloud with the whole family over the course of several nights. Adults may catch some of the humor that children will miss and should enjoy the adventure as much as their children.
Read more of Sarah's reviews.
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