This book was really not what I expected it to be.
This book is like Pot of Gold chocolate. You think you’re eating a chocolate but what you really get is a chocolate with a cherry inside. Well, not cherry. I don’t like cherry. We’ll say hazelnut… but you can have a cherry if you really want it, Internetland. Basically, what I’m saying is this book makes out to be something, but ends up being something TOTALLY UNEXPECTED. At least I didn’t expect it.
What I Was is a story told by an old man named H looking back on his youth. You find out his real name later in the book, and I don’t want to spoil it for you ;). H is a sixteen year old boy in 1967 who is transferring to a new boarding school called St. Oswald’s on the coast of England. I was initially drawn to this book because of the boarding school theme. For some reason I’ve always been fascinated by boarding school life and I always wished I could have gone to boarding school. I know I’m a weird-o. This love of boarding school life is what also drew me to the Harry Potter books.
Anyway, moving on. H is sent to St. Oswald’s because he has been kicked out of two other boarding schools and this was the only one that would take him. The way he describes the school reminds me of the school Harry’s aunt and uncle pretended he was going to – St. Brutus’s Secure Centre for Incurably Criminal Boys. But, H is not an incurable criminal. He’s just lazy. He doesn’t like to do school work, or sports, or anything at all. He was kicked out of his previous schools for simply lacking ambition.
H tells us about how horrid his life at school is and how he is proud of having been kicked out of two schools previous to this one. He describes himself as lanky and unattractive, and says he can’t be successful because he is lanky and unattractive while the other students at the school are tall, handsome, and athletic. He always seems to be putting himself down.
Eventually, H meets a mysterious boy named Finn who lives alone in a beach hut on the coast. Finn doesn’t go to school, doesn’t have a social security number, and basically doesn’t exist to the government. He lived with his grandmother after his mother abandoned him and when his grandmother passed away he continued to live his simple life. H admires Finn in every way. Finn is attractive, independent, and free. This is what H wants more than anything, and he becomes a little obsessed with Finn.
Now this is where you think you have figured out what this book is – a gay coming of age story. Since I read this book for my Young Adult Literature class I didn’t think anything of this. I’ve already read one book about a gay teen making his way in the world, so I figured there would be another one.
So, Finn and H become friends and H even stays with Finn over the Easter holidays. They get closer and closer, with H admiring Finn more and more as the time passes. H learns different skills from Finn, including sailing and fishing.
Then something unthinkable happens that disrupts H’s fantasy life with Finn. H’s classmate, Reese, discovers Finn and is forced into telling the school officials about him. While this is going on Finn becomes seriously ill and H has to take care of him. Cue ROLE-REVERSAL theme music!
Now, I’m about the describe the climax of the book and if you don’t want any spoilers you should skip to the end of my post.
A storm is coming and H needs to get help for Finn who is getting more and more ill. When H pulls back the blankets covering Finn he discovers that Finn is covered in blood. Naturally, he panics. I would too! H rushes to town to call an ambulance for Finn, and all the while the school officials are trying to hunt H down and bring him back to the school to explain himself. The storm is getting worse and H retreats to Finn’s hut to hide. Finn is gone when he gets there and H assumes he either left or was taken to the hospital. During the storm H hears Reese calling for him from across the water. When H tries to go out and save Reese the boy ends up getting washed away by the waves and drowns. H feels he’s to blame because had he not shouted for Reese, Reese would have not been distracted enough to let go of what he was holding on to and wouldn’t have fallen into the ocean and drowned.
When the storm is over, H needs to find Finn. He phones the hospital to see if his friend made it there, but when the receptionist tells him no one named Finn was admitted the night before he makes his way to the hospital to make sure. When he gets to hospital H figures that Finn would have given the hospital staff his name because Finn technically doesn’t exist to the government. H asks for Hilary, his real name. When H finds Finn the nurse keeps referring to him as a she and H is getting quite upset. Finn won’t even look at him and finally the nurse says they found Finn suffering from glandular fever and dehydration and he was menstruating at the time. Wait… what? Menstruating? But, that would mean… Finn is actually a girl. A fourteen-year-old girl. And that means this book ISN’T a gay coming of age story and is actually about gender roles in society without really being about gender roles in society. Whaaaat? Mind = blown.
Actually, I figured it out when H found the blood, but up until that point I believed what H believed. Meg Rosoff did a great job writing from H’s point of view.
Okay, you can start reading here again.
H jumps forward in his story explaining how he left school and home and went to live in Finn’s little hut by the ocean. He fixed it up, lived simply, and basically became Finn. He even started to use Finn’s name. He grew up into an attractive and mysterious man who lived in a hut by the sea. Everything he wanted to become he became.
I really enjoyed this book and its crazy twist. Rosoff did a wonderful job.