Noah Barleywater Runs Away
is a 2010 young adult novel by Irish novelist John Boyne. A modern retelling of the fairy tale Pinocchio
, the novel follows eight-year-old Noah as he runs away from troubles at home and befriends an elderly puppet maker, whose story persuades Noah to return and face his fears. John Boyne is the author of six novels for young readers, including the New York Times
bestseller The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas
We meet Noah as he sets out from home. He is running away to “make his own way in the world,” have adventures, and achieve something meaningful. However, there are hints that Noah is deceiving himself about his reasons for leaving. For example, we learn that he is leaving behind “a great blanket of happy memories trying to break through and smother the fresher, sadder ones.”
Noah travels through fantastical villages, having adventures with a hint of darkness. In one village, he picks apples from a well-laden apple tree, only for the tree to start crying. The villagers rush both tree and apples to the hospital, telling Noah he has committed a serious crime. Later he meets a very short man pushing a cat in a wheelbarrow. When Noah gets in his way, the man frets that now he will be late for the cat’s vet appointment: “If that happens, my cat is sure to die. And it will be all your fault. You really are a monstrous little boy.”
Finally, Noah meets a dachshund and a donkey, who are friendlier and point Noah in the direction of a toyshop.
The shop is full of wooden puppets, talking quietly among themselves. The elderly puppet maker who owns the shop tells Noah that no one else has ever visited it: “Perhaps you were sent here for a reason.”
It is not only the puppets that seem alive. The floorboards jump as Noah goes to step on them. The clock introduces himself as “Alexander,” and it becomes clear that he is very tightly wound. The door is named Henry: “‘Apologies, apologies all,’ said the door, pressing itself firmly into the wall in front of him. ‘I got talking to the clock and quite lost track of time. He never stops when he gets going, does he?’”
The puppet maker gently prods Noah to reveal why he has run away from home: “Aren’t you running away from home because you’re being bullied?” No, Noah explains, he is well-liked and popular. And he is good at his schoolwork, the seventh cleverest boy in his class.
“I suppose it was your family, then.”
Noah says that his family is wonderful. To prove it, he tells a story about his mother: she was so pleased when Noah scored 4,500,000 at pinball that she immediately started looking for a new adventure for the two of them to take on together. “You only live once,” was her reasoning.
Exploring the shop, Noah finds a wooden box full of puppets, older than the puppets on the walls. The puppet maker explains that his father, Poppa, made them long ago when the puppet maker was still a boy.
One by one, the puppets tell the story of the puppet maker’s childhood (with comments from Henry, Alexander, and the rest of the shop’s furniture). The puppet maker recalls how he was beaten up by the school bully, Toby Lovely, and how he got his revenge by beating Toby in a foot race. The puppet maker discovered that he was a gifted runner. With his running coach, Mr. Wickle, the puppet maker won all the village races. He went on to run with royalty and run in the Olympics, race after race. These stories are laced with clues to the puppet maker’s identity.
One day, as the puppet maker sets off for another race, his Poppa asks him to promise that he will come back.
“Yes, yes,” the puppet maker replies, “scarcely even thinking about whether I meant it or not.”
While he is away, the puppet maker receives a letter: Poppa is ill.
“‘Did you get there in time?’ Noah asks. ‘Did you get home before he . . . before anything. . .’”
“‘Before he died?’ the old man [says]. ‘Can’t you say the word?’”
The puppet maker explains that he has lived with his broken promise his whole life: he has never been able to recapture his former self.
Noah finally tells the puppet maker what he is running away from. His mum is very sick, and he wants to know the truth about her illness: “I’m eight! I want to know what’s going on.’’ But his father refuses to tell him outright, and Noah feels “a hurricane of anger, starting in the pit of his stomach, twisting and turning, collecting bits of fury and pieces of temper as it whirled around.’’
With the puppet maker’s help (and the puppets’), Noah realizes he must return home to face his fears. Before he leaves, Noah learns that the puppet maker’s Poppa was named Geppetto. He also understands that by making puppets, the old man is trying to recreate his former self. Together with earlier clues about the old man’s identity, readers who know the story of Pinocchio
will recognize that the old man is the puppet who became a real boy.
At home, Noah’s mother tells him the truth, and together they watch the sunrise over the forest so that Noah will remember her every time he sees the sun come up.