It’s the late summer of 1962 and Rex Norton-Norton has just moved to Ottawa, where his family, which has had its economic ups and downs, is experiencing a period of prosperity. Rex has even met some friends, who have decided that “Norton minus Norton” ought to equal Zero, hence their name for him.
1962 s a troubling time for an 11 year old just beginning to get a sense of the world and how it works. Tensions are high between the superpowers and residents in the capital city are building fallout shelters, emulating the government’s Diefenbunker.
One of Rex’s sisters has her own bomb shelter in the basement and spends a lot of time there when she isn’t tracking down Russian spies. There’s a somewhat dyslectic man in the park known as Dump Orbit who carries a sign reading “Prepare to meet Thy Gob”.
Oh, and according to Rex’s chums, there’s an escaped black panther in Adams Park. He got away from a zoo in Granby and seems to be working his way to Ottawa, according to newspaper clippings about strange livestock deaths that Kathy Brown (who is trying to get a photo of him) has been collecting.
The gang are all having to cope with the stress that most of their parents are experiencing as the world draws near to the 13 days of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Interestingly enough, Dump Orbit’s sign says the world will end on “Octoder 23” (remember his spelling problem), right in the middle of that period.
Well before the fatal date, Rex has concocted a plan to deal with the menace of the panther and help the poor, homeless man. Both parts of the solution are stranger than you might think and worth reading.
Wynne-Jones has a way of injecting a healthy dose of paranoia into events that turn out to be much less dramatic than his protagonists generally think they are at the time they are happening. If that sounds patronizing, then let me say that he manages to find the drama in everyday life and makes it interesting to read about.
There is a second book, Rex Zero the King of Nothing, and I’m already wondering what it might be about.