In the daytime, while most eleven year old children are at school, Jorge is walking around the tourist attractions of Paris, ignoring the rumbles of his empty stomach, as he looks for easy targets to steal cash from. Often he has to wait until the end of the day before he can eat. Once he has handed his takings over to his ‘controller’, Bill, he is given a few Euros for food. There is little left over for other essentials.
At night Jorge returns to a camp on the outskirts of Paris. His home is a small shed made mostly of cardboard which he shares with twelve year old Abel. Jorge barely remembers his parents and his home in Romania. He went with Bill to Paris with the hope of making a better life for himself and sending money home to help his parents. Now he is trapped in a life of poverty and theft.
Jorge doesn’t feel right about stealing, but is aware of the limitations of his situation. He decides that if he learns to cook, he can find work and escape from the camp with his friend Ada, before she is sold in ‘marriage’ to an old man. But his time is running out. Ada is almost old enough to be ‘married’ and there are rumours that the government is planning to bulldoze the camp. He needs to figure out how to implement his plan quickly to save himself and his friends.
Jorge is a memorable character who it is easy to empathise with. Despite his history he is kind and brave. He has an unexpected depth of insight into the people around him and understands the impact of his actions upon others. He is quick to learn yet also, due to his life experience, displays a naivety about social norms. There are a number of scenes where he compares his experience of normal with others around him, usually in conversation. This comparison gently emphasises the poverty he lives in and reveals the magnitude of his situation.
A Cardboard Palace is a beautiful, captivating story. It is cleverly written to empathise with two groups of victims, those who are stolen from and the children who have been forced to steal, whilst highlighting the issue of child trafficking. When I was given the opportunity to read and review this book for the Big Book Club, I already had a copy of it sitting on my desk. My ten year old had selected a copy when we were shopping for a book. She devoured it in a single day then handed it to me saying, “You have to read this book. It is so good”. I agree with her.