Steve Cole’s new book for Barrington Stoke, Tin Boy, is brave, committed and necessary. It’s a story of poverty, corporate exploitation, child labour, survival and the hope of a better future. Set in Indonesia, it features Tono and his family who dive to the sea bed in search of tin ore.
Tin is a prized find and in demand for the growing electronics market that needs it for its integrated circuits. Although it’s a material central to the new electronic industrial revolution, families like Tono’s risk their lives for tiny amounts of subsistence profit that they can carve out for themselves. And they have to do this despite the presence of the multinational big ships who undertake an industrial level mining and the treacherous nature of the ever moving sea bed that may cave in and bury them at any moment. Lives are lost on a distressingly frequent basis – Tono’s own father has been a victim – and there are even rumours that prolonged exposure to the ore, which has radioactive properties, can ruin the health of even the youngest and strongest.
When one day Tono is caught in a sea bed collapse that buries him, something like a small miracle saves his life. When he wakes from his ordeal he is clutching a small, polished piece of red glass he picked up from the sea bed just before the accident and this becomes his good luck charm. Soon rumours are spreading about the young boy with a charm who can keep you safe from accidents and, with the help of Kamala, a young disabled girl who helped nurse him back to health, a dubious business is born selling Tono’s presence at diving sites as insurance against accident.
Tono’s strict uncle and older cousin who he now lives with disapprove of Tono selling this fake insurance and the young boy finds himself torn between this sudden new income stream and his sense of what is fair and decent. And, of course, as his spurious fame spreads and the money-making potential becomes clear to others, soon there is trouble afoot.
Will the lucky stone be Tono’s way out of this terrible way of life or is he doomed to the sort of short, unhappy end that faces so many others? Telling you how this story ends would be an unforgivable spoiler but what it is fair to say is that Steve Cole doesn’t provide his readers with easy answers or comfort where no comfort is due but he also allows hope to survive – and that’s something we all need to believe in.
There are some excellent notes at the end of the book from the author explaining the background to the story and filling in some of the factual information he came across when he did his research. All of this was very welcome and, as a reader, I want to acknowledge that Steve Cole’s story introduced me to an industry, a way of life and a mode of exploitation I knew nothing about and I came away, as I hope you would, outraged by the injustices the real world Tono’s face on a daily basis.
( This review was first published on The Letterpress Project website)