This Mortal Boy is a challenging book to read for anyone who abhors the death penalty as much as I do.
The novel is based on the true case of Albert Black, a young Irish man who fell in with the wrong crowd in 1950s New Zealand and found himself sentenced to death.
Black, also known as “Paddy” was just twenty years old when he got into a fight with another man at a milk bar in Auckland in July 1955. He was sent to the gallows less than five months later, all appeals and applications for clemency having failed.
Fiona Kidman recreates the events leading up to his death, setting it into a context of a burgeoning youth culture that caused moral outrage among conservative New Zealanders and their political leaders. Part of the novel relates Black’s experiences as an immigrant from Ireland and then as a prisoner awaiting execution. Other chapters are set in Belfast where Black’s family spearhead a petition for clemency, appealing for help to their MP and their Queen.
Seeking a New Life
In Kidman’s telling, Black arrived in New Zealand as a “Ten Pound Pom” — an immigrant on an assisted passage excited about the “limitless possibility” of his new life. He seemed happy initially, finding work and lodging with a young widow and her children in the Hutt Valley. But he left for Auckland, lured by the prospect of better pay and a more exciting life in the city’s milk bars and dance halls.
It’s in one of those milk bars that Black encountered a brusque English seaman who styled himself “Johnny McBride” after a Mickey Spillane character. McBride moved into the boarding house where Black was a caretaker but tensions soon surfaced between the pair.
McBride gave the younger lad a severe beating at a party one night after which Black decided to carry a knife. The next night after a scuffle over the juke box, Black stabbed the seaman in the neck. It proved fatal.
The question for the jury was whether Black acted in self defence or set out deliberately to kill McBride. In Kidman’s narrative, the young Irishman never had a chance of getting a fair trial for, in the 1950s, “Moral panic had seized the country as word spread of an epidemic of loose behaviour by teenagers.”
In the eyes of conservative New Zealanders, the rise of bodgies and widgies (think mods and rockers) was all the fault of the American soldiers who had corrupted people’s minds with their candy and jitterbug dances. American pop music and pulp fiction also had a bad influence.
Victim of Moral Outrage
The country’s prime minister Sid Holland led the charge against such behaviour, commissioning a report on the moral decline of teenagers in New Zealand that was delivered to every household. The youngsters like Black who hung around cafes in outlandish clothes and read banned books, were morally reprehensible according to his report.
Sex, he made clear (although he preferred the term carnal knowledge) was not something polite people talked about and young people had no right to get up to it. Young girls needed protecting from themselves. They would never get husbands if they got up to tricks beforehand.
in the eyes of the prime minister, Black and his cohorts were delinquents who had to be stamped out. Sentencing him would send a “short, sharp reminder to those who follow reprehensible modes of living and are sexually promiscuous,” Holland declares to those of his ministers who are proposing clemency.
It’s clear that Kidman’s sympathies lie with Black. He loves dancing and partying but generally he’s a kind, gentle, homesick lad. He yearns to return to his family in Belfast but knows it’s going to take a long while before he’ll have saved up enough money for the fare. Until then he finds solace by singing old Irish songs.
Black’s calm demeanour while in prison deeply affects many of the people who come into contact with him. His lawyer is haunted by the thought that his own sons could so easily have suffered the same fate. Tellingly, his experience of defending Black has made him question his faith in the justice system. “Once, he would have wished them to follow the law, as he has done, but now he hopes they will not. The law, as it stands at this moment, seems cruel and unjust.”
This Mortal Boy is a book that makes you think. On one level it’s a story of one ordinary man who just wanted a better life but makes one disastrous mistake. But in delving into the forces ranged against Albert Black, Kidman presents one of the most convincing arguments against political interference in justice.
This Mortal Boy by Fiona Kidman: Footnotes
New Zealander novelist and poet Fiona Kidman, worked as a librarian and a freelance journalist early in her career. She began writing novels in the late 1970s, often featuring young women who subvert society’s expectations, inspired by her involvement in the women’s liberation movement. Her first novel, A Breed of Women (1979), caused controversy for this reason but became a bestseller in New Zealand. Over the course of her career, Kidman has written eleven novels, seven short-story collections, two volumes of her memoirs and six collections of poetry.
She has received numerous awards and honours during her career, including the Ngaio Marsh Award for a television play in 1971 and an Arts Council Award for Achievement in 1988. In 1988 Kidman was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire, for services to literature. In the 1998 New Year Honours she was appointed a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit.
This Mortal Boy, published in 2018, was sparked by her interest in “how some young men live their lives, believing they are immortal, yet one terrible mistake can change everything for them and their families.”
Details of Albert Black’s conviction were reported in The Press, Auckland on 22, Oct 1955. Black was hanged in Auckland on 5 Dec 1955. After his death, public support for capital punishment diminished. Hanging for the crime murder was officially abolished in New Zealand in October 1961.
I read this book as part of my #20booksofsummer project in 2022. I’m counting it as book 15 in my #22in22 personal project where I am trying to read 22 books from my TBR that I acquired before 2022