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The Ballad of a Broken Nose

Review

The Ballad of a Broken Nose

In Arne Svingen's novel THE BALLAD OF A BROKEN NOSE, readers join the doggedly determined protagonist, Bart, as he pursues his dreams --- all of them. Bart is no ordinary 13-year-old, with a passion for both opera music and boxing and a great deal of responsibility at home. He is raised by a single mother with a terrible drinking problem in a one-room slum in the country of Norway, and Bart ends up taking care of his mother more than she takes care of him. Undeterred by his difficult upbringing, Bart keeps his eyes fixed on his goals: to box as well as the legend Muhammad Ali, to sing beautiful opera music as well as the greats, to find his biological father despite having no clues to help him and more.

"THE BALLAD OF A BROKEN NOSE is a fun read and contains lessons about keeping problems in perspective and keeping an eye on the prize...."

Many obstacles stand in Bart's way, but he fights through them. He has paralyzing stage fright that makes his voice crack when he sings in front of an audience (even a solo performance for his grandmother), and he hasn't figured out how to punch yet and takes a pounding whenever he fights, which leads to his eponymous BROKEN NOSE. Bart has an opportunity to live his operatic dream at his end-of-year talent show at school, but he must stand up to his fears and find enough courage to step into the spotlight.

THE BALLAD OF A BROKEN NOSE is a fun read and contains lessons about keeping problems in perspective and keeping an eye on the prize no matter how tough things get that would be useful for young readers. However, it must be stated that this novel's portrayal of impoverished life is quite problematic. Bart's biggest source of embarrassment in his life --- more than his odd taste in music or undeveloped social skills --- is the fact that he lives in public housing. The building he lives in is described as a horror: needles in the hallway, garbage everywhere, fights in the staircase, people behaving like animals. Every character we meet in his public housing apartment building, including Bart's mother, has an addiction. Bart remarks that most of the people in his building are high all the time, and the closest thing to a positive statement Svingen writes about these characters is that only about ten percent of them are dangerous. Bart says that he feels like he was raised by wolves, never seeing how humans properly conduct themselves. He comments that it is fine to live in public housing, as long as the other kids at school never hear about it.

If you are going to give this book to your son or daughter to read or are going to teach it in a literature class, there must be an explanation provided to the young readers that not all life in public housing is this way. A majority of public housing tenants live ordinary, healthy lifestyles and living in such a building is nothing to be ashamed of at all. I could imagine it being a very uncomfortable scenario if a student who lives in public housing were to discuss this novel with fellow students who do not. Some of the meaning in Svingen's words may not have transferred seamlessly in the translation from Norwegian to English, leading to a very negative and unfair stereotype of public housing tenants being communicated in this novel. Bart's story is a motivational one and Svingen's writing is very fun and easy to read, but an adult needs to have a conversation with younger readers to dispel the stereotype that is presented here.

Reviewed by Rob Bentlyewski on June 16, 2016

The Ballad of a Broken Nose
by Arne Svingen