The 1995 novella The Maestro
by Tim Wynne-Jones is a coming of age narrative intended for middle grade readers. The work tells the story of a young teenage boy whose abusive father drives him to run away from home until, in the midst of the Canadian wilderness, the boy finds a new mentor figure and has to navigate a new world of adults and their expectations. Critics praise the book’s complex and well developed characters and the surprising twists and turns of its plot, although some readers complain that the pacing is too slow. The novella won the Canada's Governor General's Award for Children's Literature.
Fourteen-year-old Burl Crow lives in a city in northwest Ontario, in a family which has come unglued since the death of his sister Laura. The family already struggled before this: Burl’s mother Dolores has an unspecified mental illness, while his father Cal has been abusing her and his other children for years. But before, his dad would sometimes show a more parental side, taking Cal and Laura fishing, and teaching them forestry and survival skills. After the tragedy, however, things get much worse. For his mother, that means drug addiction – she keeps herself heavily medicated to dull her mental breakdown. His father, on the other hand, has started to unleash his brutality even more.
Burl has learned to expect little from life. For one brief shining moment in 8th
grade, he had a teacher who appreciated his artistic potential – but now that he is about to go to high school, Mrs. Agnew will no longer be in his life.
One day, Burl decides to follow his father to a secret fishing spot that Cal is always sneaking off to. But when the boy gets there, he sees that instead of fishing, Cal has been having an affair with the local coffee shop barista. Too shocked to stay hidden, Burl is discovered seemingly spying. Cal viciously beats his son, only stopping to stare at an odd sight: a helicopter carrying a piano flying overhead.
Burl takes advantage of his father’s distraction and runs off into the late-summer woods. He spends a hard day and night using the survival skills Cal taught him, but the next day, he hears the sounds of a piano drifting through the trees. Following it, Burl finds Ghost Lake, next to which is a small, odd pyramid-like cabin. Inside, a man sits composing music – it is his playing that led Burl to this place.
The man is Nathaniel Orlando Gow, a world-famous pianist who has fled Toronto before he dies in order to have the solitude he needs to finish his masterwork: an oratorio he will call “The Revelation,” and which he hopes will rival Mozart’s “Requiem.” At first, Gow is annoyed at having his isolation disturbed, but seeing Burl’s bruised face, he allows the boy to stay.
Gow asks to be called the Maestro, a title of musical respect, and shows Burl some of the oratorio. His moods are mercurial, but despite his usual reluctance to teach anyone the piano, the Maestro finds it easy to patiently help Burl learn several complex movements from this work. The two fall into a frequently testy living arrangement, as the Maestro’s behavior is somewhat erratic, while Burl desperately tries to figure out ways to be helpful in the cabin so that the Maestro doesn’t kick him out.
However, the Maestro abruptly decides to go to the city for a short time. He leaves Burl to watch the cabin, and returns to Toronto. As the days go by without his return, Burl is ecstatic to be living alone in what at first seems like glorious freedom. But when the weather turns colder, what at first seemed like a haven now starts to be more of an isolated danger zone. Burl must deal with a bear attack, has to figure out how to feed himself, and cope with the knowledge that his parents didn’t even bother to report him missing.
After he’s been living in the cabin for a month, Burl gets a visit from Bea Clifford, the owner of the small local Skookum Airways. She tells him that the Maestro died shortly after getting to Toronto, and that he had told everyone that his son was in the cabin all alone. Worried about a young boy on his own, and assuming that Burl really is the Maestro’s son, Bea has come to bring him some supplies, and also to advise him to travel to Toronto to see the Maestro's lawyer and get the rights to the cabin.
In Toronto, Burl encounters Regina Corngold, who had been one of the Maestro’s closest friends. She is somewhat skeptical that Burl really is the Maestro’s son, and when he fesses up that this isn’t the case, she advises him that he might still get to live in the cabin if he plays his card’s right. Regina tells Burl to go back to the cabin, retrieve the oratorio, and then trade it to the Maestro’s family in exchange for the cabin, which they probably don’t really care about in the first place.
Burl returns to Ghost Lake. But when he is trying to collect the Maestro’s work, his father Cal barges into the cabin. He has at last located his missing son and has come to bring him back home. Burl is incensed at the idea, which sends Cal into a rage. As they fight, the cabin is accidentally set on fire, and Burl is suddenly put into a terrible position. Both Cal and the oratorio are in danger, but it is clear he can only pull one of them out of the fire to safety.
Burl chooses to save his dad, carrying him a long way because Cal’s legs are burned too badly to walk. Cal gains a newfound measure of respect for his son from this, especially since Burl is walking in the forest without shoes.
The novel ends with another of the Maestro’s friends, his neighbor Japheth Starlight, giving Burl the task of cleaning up the somewhat-burned cabin. When Burl arrives there, he sees that someone has bought him a new, perfectly fitting pair of boots.