Author: Ralph Fletcher
Genre: Contemporary, Young Adult
Publisher: Clarion Books
Publication date: November 14th 2011
Hardcover: 144 pages
Bobby Steele and his pals, Marcus and Big Poobs, all public school kids from working class backgrounds, are waiting for tenth grade to start when they come across an application form for Whitestone Academy, a prestigious and posh private school. Just for giggles, they decide that a nonexistent kid should apply—and so Rowan Pohi is born. (Named for their favorite hangout, Pohi is IHOP spelled backwards.) Amazingly enough, the phantom Rowan is accepted at Whitestone.
Eager to escape the boredom of public school and his unhappiness at home, Bobby shows up at Whitestone’s new student orientation, reinventing himself as Rowan. He begins a suspenseful career as an impostor, hoping that the two worlds he’s living in will stay separate forever. For a short, exhilarating time, they do. Ralph Fletcher’s signature light touch in addressing serious issues in young people’s lives is evident in this story of identity lost and found.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
How did I get this book: Review copy via Neggalley
Why did I read this book: I am also on the lookout for good ContempYA and when this showed up on NetGalley I grabbed it almost immediately.
Warning: this review contains spoilers
Bobby Steele’s name is infamous but not through any fault of his own. He shares his name with his father whose face and name appeared all over the newspapers when he was arrested for burning his wife’s arm with a hot iron after a fight. It was the first and last time he laid his hand on her – she leaves as soon as he is released from his short stay in prison but she doesn’t take her kids. Bobby and his younger brother Cody remain behind with a father they both love and fear.
One day during summer vacation and just before the school year starts, Bobby and his best mates Marcus and Big Poobs are hanging out at their favourite place, IHOP when they come across an application form for the prestigious Whitestone Academy, a private school for rich people (or for those with a scholarship). They create a guy called Rowan Pohi (Pohi being IHOP spelled backwards) fill the form with loads of fake information (but don’t include school transcripts) send it out (complete with a syrup stain and everything) and wouldn’t you know, a miracle happens and Rowan Pohi is actually accepted at this prestigious, posh academy.
Deciding they have gone far enough, the boys decide to fake-kill and fake-bury Rowan Pohi but Bobby, unbeknownst to the other two, decides to go ahead with the ruse and pretending to be Rowan goes to Whitestone on the first day of school. He is moved by a need to change his life and to move away from his problems at home, even though he is daunted by not having the thousands of dollars required to pay the school, or even money enough for the uniform. Not that this is an actual problem because soon enough Rowan/Bobby lands a full scholarship after writing a 500 word essay which he writes within 45 minutes without any preparation or advance notice.
Could be accepted at one of the best schools be as simple as that? Could earning a full scholarship in a super competitive environment be as easy as this? These questions kept plaguing me as I read the book. In all fairness, the school finds out soon enough (in a matter of days) and Bobby is caught. BUT after a disciplinary meeting in which people realise he is in fact, a good guy he is invited to stay. Thus, he is rewarded in the end, even though he committed a fraudulent act.
There is a huge amount of suspension of disbelief required from the reader and although some novels do make this suspicion of disbelief an easy task depending on how good the story is or how well-developed the characters are, I am afraid that Also Known as Rowan Pohi is not one of them. Yes, the details of the ruse are too far-fetched (the application is accepted without any real information in it; the form has a syrup stain shows a blatant lack of attention I doubt a reputable school would accept; etc) but I feel I could have accepted all of this if the other aspects of the novel had worked. But things progressed ridiculously fast and an inordinate amount of emotional engagement between Rowan/Bobby and the school, new friends, a potential girlfriend and even his persona are supposedly very deep but never truly believable.
There is also the matter of Bobby’s young brother Cody. Ever since their mother left, the 5 year-old kid has been behaving as though he is a Native-American – using accessories and telling “stories” and “facts” that reek of stereotyping. Towards the end of the novel he is clearly beyond that “phase” and is now into Spider-man because and I quote: “Being Spider-Man is way cooler than being an Indian” 1. I understand this is coming from a 5 year-old but nowhere in the text there is the acknowledgement that being a Native American and being Spiderman are not the same thing AT ALL.
Despite all of that, I appreciate that there are in fact, many aspects of this novel that were really good. I understood Bobby’s motivations for not wanting to share a name with his father and simply wanting to go to a better school that had sports programs (cut from his public school) and that would give him a better chance in life. I liked his relationship with his two best friends and with his brother. Above all, I thought the author excelled at making the father a sympathetic figure despite everything. He is making amends for his mistakes, trying to rise above his lot in life, attending AA meetings and still suffering the consequences of his regrettable behaviour. His wife left because of HIM and will never return, his kids fear HIM and yet he needs to go on and to bring them up to the best of his ability.
There is a very fragile balancing act between what worked and what didn’t work though and ultimately the balance tips towards the latter.
Notable Quotes/ Parts: The chapter where Bobby recounts the night his father hurt his mother was quite gripping. And horrifying.
Rating: 4 – Bad but not without some merit
Buy the Book:
- The sound you just heard was my head hitting the desk ↩