1977’s Ordinary Jack is the first volume in Helen Cresswell’s YA Bagthorpe Saga.
The Bagthorpes are perhaps the single greatest collection of geniuses the world has ever seen. At least, that is what the Bagthorpes would say … and if you cannot trust the single greatest collection of geniuses the world has ever seen, whom1 can you trust?
Jack Bagthorpe is the sole exception. Poor Jack is exceptionally unexceptional.
It’s not easy being the only regular person in a family of virtual demigods. Jack’s family is unsympathetic. Uncle Parker, on the other hand, married into the Bagthorpes. Having been raised outside the Bagthorpe tradition of self-aggrandizement, he can see Jack’s point of view. Not only that, but the idea of taking the Bagthorpses down a peg or two appeals.
Uncle Parker cannot give Jack talents he does not have. He can, however, suggest ways in which Jack might appear to have remarkable gifts possessed by no one else in the family. With Parker’s advice in hand, Jack sets out to establish himself as a Prophet.
Despite his family’s best efforts not to pay Jack any attention, Jack makes a serious of unlikely prognostications. Amazingly each one comes true! Jack may appear unremarkable, but he must have powers beyond human ken.
Of course, this is an illusion that requires careful behind-the-scenes orchestration behind the scenes. Complex schemes require complex planning; good thing Jack has a journal in which he records all his machinations. After all, it’s not as if keeping a diary could ever backfire horribly on him.
It may be that the Bagthorpes are less the pinnacles of human potential they believe themselves to be and more a collection of smug Dunning-Kruger survivors who, if they stopped promoting themselves for one instant, might disappear into total irrelevance. Six of one, half a dozen of the other.
This belongs to the zany family school of comedy, with examples such as the book and TV series about the Durrells in Greece2 to more modern examples such as Raised by Wolves. A cast of eccentrics has many advantages from a plotting perspective. Just wind them up and let them do their thing for as many pages as your contract specifies.
Cresswell plies her craft with skill, giving each of her figures distinct and amusing proclivities. The book that results is full of madcap misadventures that feature a lot of shouting but very few life-altering injuries.
That said, I do not seem to be the target market for this book. It may be that I encountered it a half-century too late…
1: James: the editor did that to me. Whom? Editor: you will have to pry my whom from my cold dead hands.
2: The actual Durrells were a lot less funny. If you enjoyed My Family and Other Animals, don’t read about the people on whom the figures in the book were based.