My parents really love murder mysteries. I admit that it’s a little beyond me, but then they seem politely perplexed by my love of Star Trek. But there’s one murder mystery show we all enjoy: Foyle’s War. If you don’t know it, it’s set in WWII England, with the detective, Foyle, solving all kinds of mysteries during the years of the war: some involving German spies in England, many more involving English bureaucrats or problems within the British system. Each episode is like a short, exquisitely-crafted war movie.
The odd thing is that I don’t really like war movies. That said, I do like “exquisitely-crafted” works of art. This also goes to explain why I so enjoyed The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle, written by Janet Fox.
As you know by now, my dear and dedicated reader, I rarely write about novels. (The exceptions have been Moominland Midwinter, The Secret Garden, Fairyland, and Marvels.) Why? Well, basically, I’m mostly reading picture books with the Changeling right now, and rarely have time for novels. I absolutely love a good children’s novel, though, and this is a good one.
Given that I’m out of touch with what’s going on in the world of children’s novels, though, it took a lucky bit of happenstance to put me onto this one. You will be unsurprised to learn that this lucky bit of happenstance occurred at the Children’s Book Shop in Brookline. The shop owner has some of the best taste in children’s literature I’ve ever met. (“What’s that book up there?” I asked. “Oh, that’s the shop owner’s recommendation. It’s–” “I’ll buy it,” I interrupted.)
OK, so, if you haven’t been to the Children’s Book Shop, and don’t know the owner, then you may require a bit more explanation about what the book involves than I did in order to be persuaded to give it a shot. First things first, though, a warning: This reads like the first book in a series. If you do not want to be hooked on a series and waiting impatiently for the next books to come out, then I heartily recommend not reading this one. I am living proof of what happens if you do: “What happens to–? What happens next?” I walk around whispering. I am spooked, electrified, jumping at small noises– utterly hooked. And, also? It’s a fast read. I read it in a day, easily. And without even neglecting my other responsibilities! (I promise. I even made salmon croquettes for supper.)
OK, enough of all that. By now you want to know, “Yes, but what’s the book about?” It’s about a girl and her family in wartime England. They’re being broken up by the war: Katherine (Kat) Bateson and her brother (Robert) and sister (Amelie) are being sent away from the London bombs into Scotland; their father is doing something very mysterious; and their mother is staying in London with their great-aunt, Margaret. Before the children leave, Great-Aunt Margaret gives Kat a chatelaine (an old tool for keeping useful tokens close by in the days before women got pockets), and also gives her a warning: these are times, she tells Kat, which call for the imagination and for hope. Don’t be too pragmatic. For Kat Bateson, the warning not to be too pragmatic is difficult to process. She’s wholly pragmatic, her father’s “logical girl.” It’s her sister, Amelie (Ame), who’s the imaginative, lovely, dreamy one, and even Robbie has dreams of being knightly and engaging in daring deeds against the Jerries once he’s in the castle in Scotland. Kat just wants to make sure they’ll all have warm clothes. (I love Kat.)
But once they’re in the castle in Scotland, strange things start to happen. The Lady of the castle, Lady Eleanor, seems cold and remote, although she certainly feeds them well. But her hands are so cold when she greets them! And who are these children Kat keeps glimpsing– a poor-looking girl in a summer dress, trying to fish in a dried-out pond? A boy with cats? How come she can never reach them or speak to them, and why does Lady Eleanor deny all knowledge of them? Things feel… strange, spooky… dare I say haunted?
Let me note that I’m being crueler than the book here. The book isn’t one of those absurd novels which torments you with hints of magic while dragging on and on a pretext that there is none. There’s magic aplenty, and it’s entirely and wholly acknowledged by the narrator from the beginning. The difficulty is with Kat: how to get practical Kat to acknowledge the magic and solve the problem of the children.
And, of course, Kat has help: her two siblings, and their friend, Peter, who is her own age, and brave and clever. The children are all individuals, all strikingly well-drawn characters, and some of them (little Amelie, my favourite) are particularly lovable. But I think the main strength of the book comes from Kat and the Lady, both standing together, an uneasy couple, at the centre of a web of history. Who is this Lady? we wonder. Where does she come from? The book tells us a story dated to the 18th C… and then brings us back to 1940. And only Kat and the Lady, each with her own chatelaine, seem stable in that shuttling back and forth. The web of seeming chaos around them teams with frightening dreams of claw-like hands, secret passageways, drugged hot chocolate, and, always, children disappearing, one at a time.
Finely drawn characters, spooky atmosphere, intricate plot structure– I refer you back to what I was saying about Foyle’s War above: this is an exquisitely-crafted work of literature. Kat Bateson is brave, intelligent, and heart-breakingly human. Her siblings are lovable and Peter catches our interest from the beginning. And the plot is terrifying without being quite chilling. It’s very much in the Gothic tradition, filled with suspense, mysteries, horror-filled dreams, and a double-helping of black magic. The difference is that instead of having a female protagonist who faints a lot and “lets fall a tear” so often that her eyes can’t ever be dry, Kat does a lot of math, solves a lot of puzzles, and finally has a face-off with the lady which is easily one of the best scenes of the kind I’ve read:
“But,” Kat said as the blood rushed into her ears and her voice became faint, “but why?”
“Why? Why? Because I was once a helpless child, not nearly so privileged as you. Because I was once a powerless woman in a man’s world. Because all I asked for was love and shelter. And instead I got bruises and misery and heartbreak. […]”
I had to cut it off where I did for your own good, but believe me it gets even better. But notice a few things: this is extremely traditional, this face-off moment. It’s particularly Gothic, if you’ve read any Ann Radcliffe. And yet– it’s different. This is between two women, and Kat truly is a woman at this time, not a child any longer. And they’re both strong. And we feel sympathy for both, but are rooting for Kat, and– well, it’s powerful, powerful storytelling.
A word about age-appropriateness: Be aware, there is some graphic stuff that goes on here. A hand gets crushed, a woman describes being beaten by her father, body parts are dismembered. It’s not terribly graphic, the magic is far spookier than the real stuff, but I would recommend maybe Grade 6 and above.
So, be prepared: it’s a fast, addicting read. It’s spooky and special. It gave me nightmares (I’m an easy mark for nightmares). It has wonderful, lovable characters. It has evil, terrifying characters. It is spectacular. Be prepared to be hooked.