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Cardboard Cowboys by Brian Conaghan

Title: Cardboard Cowboys

Author: Brian Conaghan

Genre: Contemporary

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Published: 4th May 2021

Format: Paperback

Pages: 352

Price: $15.99

Synopsis: I’m not a genius. Not yet anyway. But Bruce is. Even though I found him living in a house made of cardboard, he’s a massive genius. Fact. So this is mine and Bruce’s story. You don’t have to believe any of it happened, but it did. All of it.

Nobody at school can see past Lenny’s size to the person within, and he’s sick of trying to make them. So when lessons gets too tough, he always goes to his bench to think. At least there no one can see him. But one day, midway through lobbing his empty can of IrnBru into the river, he’s stopped by Bruce. Bruce lives in a cardboard home hidden away by the banks, and he doesn’t approve of people messing up his front lawn…

But a bumpy start soon gives way to an unexpected friendship – and an epic roadtrip – that will change both of them for life.


Twelve-year-old Lenny has just started high school, and his life has changed in recent months. His parents feel distant, and his older brother, our Frankie, no longer lives with them – the reason why is not clear at first. Lenny is bullied at school because he’s a little overweight and doesn’t really fit in – he’d rather be invisible and the events of the recent months have seen him start cutting school, and hanging around the canals of Glasgow. Here he meets a homeless man, Bruce. Bruce and Lenny are, according to society, outcasts. They don’t belong, and people don’t want to see who they really are. Except for Trisha Woods, who is the only person at school who is kind to Lenny.

As Lenny gets to know Bruce, he begins to open up, and we find out more about what is troubling him – the kind of story where we see everything through the eyes of Lenny but his reluctance to open up to people who reach out to him, and by extension, a reluctance within his family to talk about the events that have led them to the situations they find themselves in, suggests that Lenny doesn’t know who to trust or open up to, and so, both the reader, and the characters that Lenny interacts with don’t know what to make of it, and we have to slowly peel the layers back to get to know more about Lenny and what is troubling him. In doing this, the book captures the effects of trauma that comes from bullying, isolation and homelessness, as well as being uncertain about what is happening in your own life, whatever your circumstance. It also looks at how some things can change things drastically for us, and what it means to be in those times of life such as adolescence where everything feels like it is changing, and where so many things feel like they will always be bad.

Yet this book also celebrates unusual friendships – the ones we least expect are perhaps the ones that teach us the most and teach us to be true to ourselves and reach out to people already in our circles, our family and those we work or study with. It speaks to the universal conflicts we all face in life – family, school, everything out of our control – the things that happen that alter things so dramatically, things seem so hopeless that we feel like giving up completely.

It is the kind of book that requires a bit of patience, because you need to peel the layers back to get to the heart and grit of the story, and much of what we need to know is only revealed in the latter half, at which point, I found everything started falling into place a bit better. What was hinted at almost feels like it could be something else rather than what it actually turns out to be. It has layers of complexity that assure us that we all face challenges in our lives – and that everyone deals with things in their own way, and that for some things, there are consequences to actions. This story is very character driven more than plot – as the characters Lenny and Bruce go on their journey – one of self-discovery and healing, that reunites a broken family, and the discovery of what unites people and the talents we hold, our fears and ultimately, what these factors can do in bringing us together in ways we do not expect and make us think differently about each other. Perceptions can change – and our understandings about the world and people around us might be revealed as unfounded or overly judgemental – and these can be changed over time.

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