Weaving the webs of friendship

Gaffer Samson's Luck, by Jill Paton Walsh. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 119 pp. $10.95. Jill Paton Walsh deserves to be better known by a wider group of readers. Her books, which have received wide critical acclaim, have a sensitivity and richness that should appeal to adults and children alike.

``Gaffer Samson's Luck,'' Walsh's most recent book, is a touching story about new friendships -- their formation, the artificial boundaries that sometimes stand in the their way, and the responsibilities they entail.

The author richly details the main characters and develops a suspenseful plot to unravel a story of a 12-year-old boy, James, coming to terms with different kinds of friendship.

James, who has recently moved to a village on the English Fens, is befriended by a craggy old geezer, Gaffer Samson, and latched on to by Angie, a skinny, scruffy ``van dweller'' who is protected, but not accepted, by the village children. These village children refuse to include James because, although he does live in the village, he wasn't born there. What's more, the children who live in the town's housing development -- the ``estate'' -- also exclude him because he lives in the village.

When Gaffer sends James across the Fens to retrieve his ``luck'' -- a stone that the old-timer believes will give enduring life -- the tension between James and Terry, the village children's leader, is intensified. By crossing the boggy fields, James ignores the village children's unwritten command. James is told he must ``. . . stay on the estate or just go to the shops. . . . Don't go belting around the lanes on bikes.''

James learns that unless he stands up to Terry, the leader of the village children, he will never be accepted by his classmates. By boldly accepting and fulfilling a dare from Terry, James breaks down the barriers between village and estate, and the village children accept his friendship.

James, Angie, and Gaffer are more rounded and realistic than the main characters in the author's earlier books, ``The Dolphin Crossing'' or ``Fireweed.'' James is not wholly guided by noble motives: He originally assists Gaffer because no one else is kind to him, and he is stuck with Angie because the teacher tells him to help her with her sums. Gradually, however, he develops a very real attachment to both.

Although the characters of James, Angie, and Gaffer are well developed, James's parents are quite flat -- but justifiably so. Though his father is always gruff, his mother loving and understanding, they provide a stable background for the story's focus of action.

Jill Paton Walsh has intricately woven the threads of James's friendships with Gaffer, Angie, and the village children into a colorful, complex pattern.

Lisa Lane is on the Monitor's book page staff.

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