When two Mongolian boys show up on the school playground during summer term in big furry hats and heavy furry coats, I’m so certain The Un-forgotten Coat, by Frank Cottrell Boyce, is going to be about the immigrant experience, cultural identity and integration, and ultimately, understanding and respect. Usually, in these kinds of books, the immigrant’s first day of school starts with some type of embarrassing cultural blunter. But 6th year Chingis Tuul defies (my) expectations; by using stereotypes to his advantage, he turns the tables on his class and spins an exotic falconry analogy to defy his teacher and justify why his little brother, Nergui, shouldn’t be separated from his side at school.
So when Chingis designates Julie as his Good Guide to Bootle, near Liverpool, Julie agrees in the hopes that he will invite her over to his place, which is surely decorated in “silks, with a horse-head fiddle in one corner and a samovar bubbling in the other.” (Believe you me, she’s done the research on Wikipedia.) Despite her best efforts, Chingis and Nergui end up getting themselves invited to her place instead, where they reveal that Nergui is being followed by a demon who wants to make him vanish.
Chingis and Nergui employ many tactics to evade the demon. They bake a small dough figure for the demon to eat instead. Nergui grows his hair out like a girl’s so it won’t recognize him. And on Own Clothes Day, Chingis makes Nergui wear Julie’s Everton jersey instead of his big furry coat, in order to throw the demon off. But the demon may be more real than Julie realizes, because when she goes to Chingis’ house to return the coat, it’s clear that they are all afraid of something.
In many ways, The Un-forgotten Coat is about perspectives. The story takes place in the present day, but grown-up Julie is telling it to us as a flashback. All the superstitious rigmarole that Chingis and Nergui concoct to evade their pursuer makes more sense when viewed from another lens. This theme of perspective is further reinforced by the photos, stunning Polaroids that Chingis takes, which seem all the more vivid against the mundane Bootle backdrop.
And through Chingis, Boyce fills a void in books about a child’s immigrant experience. Usually, these books follow the cultural newcomer’s journey as he or she struggles to find that happy medium between the old and the new. Fiercely unapologetic, Chingis is proud of his heritage, especially when it suits his purposes. This attitude makes the people around him accommodate him, rather than the other way around. It’s so refreshing to read about a character from another country who doesn’t play the Eliza Doolittle role; he’s the one enriching Julie’s life. And for Julie and for me, that’s what makes The Un-forgotten Coat so unforgettable.