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. ButThe Mysterious Benedict Societycomes 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 Societyis 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, adramatic -- 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 thebestcharacterizations 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.
After learning that this book precededHarry Potter and the Philosopher's Stoneand that its author, Jane Yolen, feels that Rowling stole all of her ideas fromWizard's Halland is remarkably grumpy about the Harry Potter series, stating, "... even though the story moves along, I just don't feel like they're well written" and "I always tell people that if Ms. Rowling would like to cut me a very large cheque, I would cash it" and "Rowling's prose is terrible," I just had to read this book. Sure,Wizard's Hallhas similarities to the Potter series but it isn't remotely epic, like Rowling's seven tome creation. Nor are the similarities damning. Yolen says, "[Wizard's Hall] has got a boy named Henry [who] goes to wizard school, doesn't think he has talent. He has a good friend with red hair. There's a wicked wizard who's trying to destroy the school, and the pictures on the wall move and speak and change." That's all she's got? SoBridget Jones' Diary=Pride and Prejudice. And everyone is now stealing from theTwighlight series even though vampire mythology has been around since prehistoric times. Ideas are like flowers -- just because one rose resembles another doesn't mean either is a clone. However, none of this gristmill of ridiculous bile makes a damn bit of difference if one tries to takeWizard's Hallas a stand-alone children's book. And, as one, I liked it. Not immensely. But I liked it. I thought of Harry Potter only once, when the main character forgot his wizard's robe in the wardrobe. Otherwise, the clever bits in this book bear only a passing resemblance to the clever bits in Rowling's; and they aren't nearly as well fleshed out. But that's ok. And, in fact, for what I was hoping (I hear it's ok to end a sentence with a preposition these days but I fear Yolen will read this someday and come after me). My son is a prolific reader at age six; he's not ready for the dark, epic themes of Potter. But he can probably handle most of this book (though it does get a little creepy during the final showdown) and for that, I am grateful. This is a quick read with sketchy outlines that are perfect for young readers. Yolen peppers her prose with wisdom, most of it coming in italicized sayings by the main character's "dear ma," like "Better take care than need care" and "Secrets is like wounds, can't be cleansed until opened " and "Expectations always disappoint" and "Good folk think bad thoughts; bad folk act on 'em" and, most tellingly for the plot and moral of the book, "Talent don't matter. It only matters that you try." With that, she kisses him three times, "once on each cheek for love and once on the forehead for wisdom ..." and sends him packing to Wizard's Hall. Yolen engages in some amusing humor; Henry becomes Thornmallow, a name which no one can seem to remember, "'Thornpillow!' said Magister Hickory. 'Marrow,' corrected Magister Beechvale. 'Mallow,' squeaked Thornmallow." And when the kids are in the library, trying to figure out how to defeat the dark wizard, they come upon a solution that seems to easy to Thornmallow. "'Besides, ifwethought of it, why didn't the Magisters?' 'Probably because itisto simple and too easy,' Gorse said. 'Have you ever noticed how grown-ups try to complicate everything? Make it harder than it is? Like grown-up food, with too many sauces.' 'And grown-up clothes, with too many buttons,' added Tansy. 'And grown-up manners,' Will said. 'With too manyshouldsandshouldn'ts'" But this is not an overtly funny book. For me, it was an entertaining confection. But for my kid, it may well be a tome that, with its three great themes, will resonate deeply in his psyche; Words mean something When the head of the school has confronted the dark wizard and is deflated, he begins to tell a story, "And clearly, as Magister Hickory spoke, the very act of speaking the words, telling the story, re-creating another time, gave him life. Just as the words spoken by the awful Master had brought him a kind of death." The Fine Line "By 'black,' my prickly friend, I do not mean evil. Or wicked. I mean dark and deep, as in the black water of the deepest lakes. All thosestrongest of emotionsthat -- if used improperly -- tempt us to wicked, evil deeds. For example, ambition, which can become greed. Or desire, which can become gluttony. Or admiration, which can become envy. We are all made up of such deep and dark emotions, and as we grow more mature, we learn to control them." Always try. Always. And Jane Yolen is overly fond of italics. Just saying.
The Seeing Stone There are three of these. An intriguing idea of parallel lives with Arthur of medieval times and Arthur, the mythical king. But in the first book it never quite gets off the ground. However, it was readable and enjoyable enough that I'm moving on to the second book, so ...
At the Crossing Places A nice little book chock full of interesting tidbits about medieval manor life during the crusades. But I'm still waiting for how manor Arthur ties in with King Arthur and I'm beginning to think he doesn't, really, despite the fact that manor Arthur will inherit a manor called Catmole and sees the King Arthur legends reflected in a "seeing stone" given to him by a family friend named Merlin. The Seeing Stone was the title of the first book, so I expected Arthur of manor to be more intertwined with Arthur of legend. However, at this point it seems that the King Arthur legends only serve the purpose to teach life lessons to manor Arthur. That's all fine and good but I was expecting more from this trilogy; more magic and awe of discovery, I guess. Still readable enough for me to tackle the final book of the trilogy so onward
King of the Middle March Author Cornelia Funke writes in a blurb on the back cover of this book, "The Arthur of this trilogy moves softly into one's heart." And that's just what this set of books did; tiptoed into my esteem. Perhaps the last one is the best one. Perhaps, by the last one, the reader realizes that the connection between the Arthurs is no more than it appears to be; one of legend and observer. Perhaps it was because this book took Arthur off the March and into the world of the crusades. But for whatever reason, this book, of the three, resonated most with me. The writing has been lyrical throughout but reached a pinnacle in this installment. In a chapter entitled "Gossip-Wind" Arthur writes a lyric: Nobody's sure what so-and-so really said
But everyone knows someone who knows,
Roundabout it goes, and we all suppose
Round and round, round again it goes,
And somewhere between word and word and word,
Everything worsens as the gossip-wind blows.
Nobody's quite sure, though we all know each word,
But no one cares and no one counts the cost
When round-about it goes, and we all suppose,
And truth and honor and trust lie lost. Arthur learns much in this book that resonates; tolerance, the inherent good and evil that lies in all men, the ability of politics and greed to stand in the way of good deeds. And as he learns, one watches him grow into a young man who itches to lead and protect. To do no harm. A young man whose head-line and heart-line are one. And as this young man rides home to his manor, Catmole, the reader has hope for the future of the people in his employ and under his care. I often talk about wanting to buy and island somewhere, where I can create a utopia. A place where greed is neutered and good works and deeds are paramount. And at the end of this book, the reader feels that Catmole might be such a place. Just as Camelot tried to be. So, in the end, the King Arthur lessons in the stone were just lessons. But they were lessons well-learned and well-told.