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17 June 2010

Book Review The Mysterious Benedict Society

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart

I often love love love books written for the target audiences of ten through fourteen years old because, in the case of the well-written, well-thought ones, authors who write for this demographic actually take their readers seriously. They present themes that are necessary for making one's way in the world in a palatable manner. They parent without parenting and give readers, serious readers, a mentor who speaks from within the pages and is available anytime the reader picks up the book. They don't try to impress. They don't try to be cerebral. They entertain. They teach. They inspire. They amuse. 

Certainly, not every book written for this age group is such a masterpiece. But The Mysterious Benedict Society comes close. It's an engaging page-turner with plenty of moral, ethical and societal questioning upon which the reader can munch when not turning pages. 

The Mysterious Benedict Society is chock-full of puzzles, mysteries and wordplay while simultaneously being the kind of story that you cannot seem to put down. What is more thrilling, to a young reader or to an adult reader, than four kids who are charged with saving the world? Literally saving the world? 

The book treads the fine line between myth and reality. One can imagine the events happening; they are improbable but not impossible. But the world of Stewart's creation, though it bears some resemblance to our world, is nothing like it. There is no internet. Everyone reads the newspaper. TV exists but Number Two types on a typewriter. The kids have no gadgets (save for Kate's slingshot and spyglass) but they wear fairly modern clothing, which places the sense of place firmly in some imaginary time between the Victorian era and now. This is not a distraction at all but might be why people persist in comparing this book to the Lemony Snicket books. But where Lemony Snicket is full of stories tinged with doom, Stewart's book is full of hope; it takes the time to point out what's wrong in that world (which bears a passing resemblance to ours) but doesn't sketch hopelessness in that dark, gothic manner that Handler employs. Nor is there an ever-present sneering narrator, looking down with disgust on the world around him, his readers and himself.  Yeah, I don't like Lemony Snicket.

But I digress. 

On the second page of The Mysterious Benedict Society  Stewart introduces the Emergency; "Things had gotten desperately out of control, the headlines reported; the school systems, the budget, the pollution, the crime, the weather ... why, everything, in fact, was a complete mess, and citizens everywhere were clamoring for a major -- no, a dramatic -- improvement in government." As one continues reading, one realizes that the Emergency has been going on for years with no improvement. As one continues further and delves into the plot, the Emergency is outed for what it really is; propaganda gone haywire in the media. Sound familiar? 

Near the end of the book, the villain reveals the crux of his villainous plan, which rests heavily on the idea that best way to make people feel better, and, ergo, control them, is to present a simple answers to complex problems; if one can convince people to believe in the simple answer their stress goes away and they become malleable. And when people buy into an easy answer, they stop thinking. And stop working for a better world. They become sheep beholden to the person/organization/government who gave them the simple answer. Sound familiar? 

Of course, Stewart doesn't really say any of this; Mr. Curtain simply states the idea. And sure, Stewart lifted this from Mencken ("For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong") who probably lifted it from somewhere else. But, still, in a book aimed at smart pre-teens, this reference is something wonderful. 

Despite the depth of Stewart's themes, he treats them rather lightly.  He doesn't preach. He puts it out there and then lets his characters figure out what it means, often letting the reader figure it out first. And he never makes it seem hopeless. There is always a chance, a ghost of a chance, that these kids can figure out how to fix it. All of it. 

The whole book is based on the large theme of truth and loyalty and strength of character but it didn't feel like a lecture. At all. 

I particularly enjoyed the moral fiber of the four main characters; their dedication to truth. Their dedication to each other. Their patience, mostly, with the quirks of the other three. I relished the differing strengths and talents of each of the four and how they formed a supportive ring; not decrying with envy the talents of those around them but, rather, respecting them and appreciating them, even when they were talents they wished they had. I admired their ability to take the road less traveled and suffer the consequences of not selling out.  And I admired Stewart for writing them this way.  These are all aspects to be emulated, by children and adults alike. And I always love it when a book, any kind of book, makes me want to try to be a better person. This one did. 

I found Constance Contraire to be the most loosely and carelessly drawn of all the characters; she had no consistency and made no sense. At all. Then suddenly she did make sense --perfect sense --and became one of the best characterizations I've ever experienced in children's literature.  Just like that. A piece of the puzzle was missing and when it was filled in, the world changed.  It was a brilliant story-telling turn, which I admire.

The whole book is like that. A series of puzzles, some deeper and more meaningful than others.  Some solutions were obvious to me.  Some were not.  Some I figured out.  Some I did not.  I mused.  I thought.  I nodded affirmatively.   But mostly I turned pages with wild abandon, eyes flying over the prose, wanting to discover what was going to happen next. 

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