(Corgi Children, 2006); pbk £6.99
Imagine a world where the great land mass of the Pangea is still intact and human history has taken an entirely different route to the one we are familiar with. A world where geo-political circumstances have resulted in African nations developing into colonial powers and Europeans becoming a marginalised and dominated people.
Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman describes just such a universe, with racial tensions playing out much like those we are familiar with today except that the power structures have been inverted. In Blackman’s allegory, the dominant Crosses are a dark skinned power elite and the light skinned noughts are disadvantaged former slaves who are treated as second-class citizens – the lack of capitalisation for the latter group clearly signalling the difference in status from the start of Blackman’s novel.
Within this alternative universe, two young friends live at the heart of the social divide. Sephy Hadley is a privileged Cross with a father who is a leading Cross politician with a deep rooted hatred for noughts. Callum McGregor is a nought whose father is part of a band of militia who rebels against the dominant Cross regime; McGregor’s mother works as a nanny for the Hadley family until she is unfairly dismissed.
On account of Callum’s mother’s occupation, he and Sephy develop a secret friendship as children. Callum breaks the mould by becoming one of the first noughts to attend the same exclusive Heathcroft High School that Sephy attends. Despite opposition from classmates and teachers alike, their childhood friendship flourishes and progresses into a more adult love affair. Trouble at home and school prompts Sephy to move away to boarding school for a fresh start but a mix up in communication results in her leaving without Callum. The parted lovers are reunited in less than romantic circumstances when the militia group Callum joins kidnaps Sephy, holding her to ransom. The lovers are reunited whilst Sephy is in captivity and are physically intimate; however, Callum is wrongly accused of rape by his fellow militia members. Sephy escapes with Callum’s help, but Callum is himself arrested. When it is revealed that Sephy is pregnant, Callum is sentenced to hang and is forced to choose between his own life and that of their unborn baby.
The inversion of the power hierarchy Blackman imagines inNoughts and Crosses prompts the reader to consider how easily the world could be a completely different place. In this respect, Blackman’s novel offers a simple message: differences between people are learnt and not inherent. Blackman’s moral is delivered not in a patronising way but through an engaging plot line full of twists and action that keeps the reader gripped. The larger themes of racial tension are wrapped up in an adventure tale that deals with the troubles of growing up and teenage angst.
The novel is aimed at a teenage audience. Striking a balance between engaging prose and a serious ethical and political message is no easy task; but Blackman succeeds, which is why her books are still found on library shelves and consistently feature on numerous ‘must-read’ lists. Despite the simplicity of the book’s message, it is one that perhaps cannot be taken for granted. Delivering that moral as Blackman does in a simple yet engaging way not only exposes young readers to the importance of racial tolerance but also to the value of reading itself.