The Tightrope Walkers

Written by David Almond

Dominic Hall is growing up in a pebble-dashed home in northern England in the post-WWII years. His father, a caulker in the shipyards, is a tough but fair and loving man. After the war, England has changed, and opportunity exists for Dominic, who is well-behaved, does well in school, and has fluency as a wordsmith that gets him noticed. Dom and his best friend, Holly, are admitted to a good school that will prepare them to be the first in their families to attend university.

After a circus visits, Holly and Dominic put up a tightrope and Dom’s mother shows them how to balance and walk the wire. Holly paints and Dom writes poetry, and both succeed admirably in school, but an animal part of Dom lies untended. The boy feels a pull toward the local delinquent, Vincent McAlinden, with whom he begins to thieve, kill small animals, and create mayhem. Dom walks a tightrope, both literally and metaphorically. In which world does he belong?

Almond’s writing is crisp and beautiful. From the slang of the shipyard to recitations in the poetry-bookshop, Almond shows through language the dichotomy that exists in Dom. The Tightrope Walker has clever symbolism and handles big ideas, but the plot moves slowly in places. Although I don’t agree with Almond’s conclusions about what it means to be human, I admire his literary finesse with the question. Dom’s struggles to understand who he is and who he could become will ring true to many adolescents.