In this action-rich fantasy-adventure, Jonathan Auxier reaches into the grab bag of Victorian story conventions and pulls out a luxurious double handful. We’ve got a pair of waifs, Molly and her younger brother Kip. (Waifs are good.) The two are also, possibly, orphans. (Orphans are even better.) Best of all, one of them is lame. (Tune up those heart strings!)
Displaced by the Irish potato famine, separated from their family, and at the end of their resources, the pair ends up being hired as servants at a mysterious, decaying English mansion located on an island, complete with turbulent weather, a family suffering from a wasting disease, and a ghostly thing called the “night man” that goes thump in the night. If all of that isn’t enough to keep the story’s energy from flagging, we’ve also got a couple of Cockney thugs delightfully named Fig and Stubbs, and a magic but deeply malevolent giant tree.
Auxier does a dandy job creating individual scenes. After Kip hears the night man digging a series of trenches around the mansion, he decides to investigate. Raking out the leaves reveals a shallow pit. (If you’re thinking “grave” you’re on the right track.) Compelled to solve the mystery, Kip jumps into the hole. As soon as he touches the tree’s roots they begin to attack him, growing at an unnatural speed and choking him. Nobody is around to hear his cries of distress. Using his crutch as a weapon, Kip barely manages to escape.
The scene works because the creepy setting has already put us on edge: the strange, windy silence; the tree – its bark described as its “hide” – has grown grotesquely around axes and swords embedded in its trunk. We can visualize Kip’s struggle and believe it.
In the bigger picture, however, the plot loses plausibility and our engagement with the characters diminishes because the scenes don’t come together to form a strong storyline. Some of the action also lacks logic. On the way to the mansion, the duo encounters a kindly storyteller named Hester Kettle at the side of the road. At one point she says disapprovingly, “Legends are not helped by the literal mind.” Bold as it is to disagree with the wise old woman, I beg to differ. It is precisely the internal logic of a story, whether magical or naturalistic, that makes it believable. Molly’s morning tasks include carrying full chamber pots to a horse-drawn wagon and driving them to a river, where she dumps the contents off a bridge. The family is down on its luck but was once fairly grand. I’m left wondering why this household doesn’t have an outhouse. Tripped up by this question, I was distracted from the story’s forward momentum.
The many secrets also start to seem contrived. Molly withholds essential information from Kip about the nature of the tree and other mysteries at the mansion for reasons that are unclear, given their closeness and need to protect each other.
There is also an issue with Molly and Kip’s manner of speaking. Auxier’s version of what novelist David Mitchell calls “bygonese” involves omitting the final “g” from verbs and using a lot of “dinnas” and “cannas,” with a smattering of “outas,” “wannas,” and “ye’s.” (“I dinna think they’re goin’ together.”) This is one way of giving the characters a distinctive sound and alerting us to the historical (or mock historical) setting, but it wears thin over more than 350 pages.
These oddities are a shame because Auxier finds obvious pleasure in language, taking words like “sough” and “wuthering” out of the mothballs and giving them an overdue airing. The sound of a leaf being crushed beneath a foot? “Crisk.” Perfect. And when Auxier slows down the action for a moment we get lovely sentences like, “Master Windsor laid his wife down as one might lay a paper boat on water.”
Underneath the hectic activity of fire and storm, attack and betrayal, are two strong ideas. One is appropriately Victorian: the dangers of instant gratification. The malevolent tree keeps characters in its power by providing limitless amounts of what they crave.
The second idea is more nuanced: the distinction between stories and lies. Insofar as there is a throughline to the narrative, it involves Molly investigating this difference and discovering both the power and limits of storytelling. The final scene introduces a treasure map, indicating a sequel. Should one be in the works, a stronger narrative outline would showcase the stuff of story more effectively.
I’ll end on a note of appreciation to the publisher, Puffin Canada, for producing a beautiful book with illustrated front matter, chapter title decorations, great use of black pages, and interesting typography. If there is any reason to continue printing books on paper, this is it – careful and innovative design that gives us something pleasing to hold in our hands.