Tuesday, August 16, 2011
So Much To Think About
The Romeo and Juliet Code by Phoebe Stone was getting lots of buzz earlier this year, and I'm happy to keep the noise going.
Quick and Dirty synopsis: An eleven-year-old English girl is moved out of London to stay with relatives in Maine in 1941 to keep her safe while her home city is under attack from the Nazis. Why did her parents dump her with her grandmother, uncle, and aunt, family members she has never known?
There's a lot of interesting things going on in this book.
Personally, I think there's a bit of a gothic novel vibe. A young woman journeys to a large old house on the seacoast, where she is unknown and knows no one. There is a tall, handsome stranger. In this case, they're both eleven years old.
The evacuation of British children during World War II to rural parts of the country or even to North America had a big impact on that generation. There's practically a genre of children's books about the subject, and The Romeo and Juliet Code is certainly a legitimate addition.
Our main character, Felicity, is eleven years old, a common age for children's book protagonists. I think the age is chosen because it's on the high end of childhood, just before the kids get to their teenage years, and it's a writer's best chance at creating a character who is mature enough to believably do things. The interesting thing about Felecity is that she's so immature. She carries a teddy bear that she talks to and interacts with, and there's no doubt that it's not appropriate for her to be doing this. It's a nice little change in children's books.
Felicity's voice seems to be both foreign (as in English) and from another time (mid-twentieth century). In American children's literature there's a lot of talk about authentic child voices (more so in YA, perhaps), and I find that this means that a lot of first-person child and YA narrators sound alike. Felicity's voice is ever so different. She sometimes got on my nerves, but I definitely respect what Stone was doing with voice here, particularly after seeing True Grit this weekend, in which the attempt to duplicate the sound of another era is extremely important--and a bit demanding of viewers.
The research Stone describes at the end of the book involves characters who barely appear in the story, which is fascinating. It's as if there's an alternative novel somewhere, a traditional World War II thriller for adults, that accompanies The Romeo and Juliet Code.
There is a mystery going on in this book, and the solution was satisfying in the sense that I only saw it coming shortly before it was revealed. What was very disturbing about the reveal was that Felicity embraced it. What she learned was something that in real life has been known to knock people on their backsides. Adults are shaken by this kind of knowledge. What was unbelievable to me wasn't what happened, but Felicity's response to it.
But The Romeo and Juliet Code is one of those old-fashioned children's stories in which a child character enters a family and fixes everyone's problems. Everyone's life is improved because of her presence. (Felicity is a fan of Frances Hodgson Burnett's--Isn't that what happened in her book The Secret Garden?) Felicity's own life is on an improving arc, too, and in order to give her as happy an ending as possible, she has to let the solution to the mystery roll off her back.
It was jarring for me, but it is only one aspect of a book with so many fascinating facets.