The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts

Written by Avi
Review by Kristen Hannum

Oliver Cromwell Pitts, born decades after the Restoration deposed his grim namesake, awakens in the middle of the night with his coastal home literally shaking around him. A terrible storm floods the first floor and rips part of the roof off. Worse, his father is missing. That leaves Oliver an orphan, since his mother died at his birth and his sister, six years older, has gone to London for a chance at a life beyond their lawyer father’s bleak outlook, and drunken, albeit successful, gambling. Oliver’s father has left a couple of notes behind, but whatever he had written on them was muddled by the flood, leaving them illegible—although Oliver surmises that his father has gone to London because of news about Oliver’s sister. There’s neither food nor money in the house, and Oliver is terrified of being sent to the children’s poorhouse, which he’s been told is as bad as the notorious Newgate Prison.

When Oliver comes across 30 shillings in a beached wreck on the coast, he cannot resist the temptation—although he only takes 23—despite the terrible punishment for thieves. He knows his father will pay the money back. But between the town’s “kindly” benefactors, who abuse the children in the poorhouse and a deadly gang of thieves, Oliver stays barely ahead of the entire adult world that is arrayed against him.

This book, by Newbery Medal winner Avi, may be aimed for 8- to 12-year-olds, but really it’s for all ages. This fast-moving story will remind you why you fell in love with reading as a kid, and is sure to kindle a love of reading for today’s youngsters who read it. Recommended.