In my effort to either to find books about girls who, rather than being precocious or full of attitude, are smart, brave, sensitive and maybe even creative, I picked up Olivia Kidney by Ellen Potter. I'll be honest, I thought Olivia was going to be another precocious girl, maybe because of her winsome name, probably because Peter H Reynolds of Judy Moody and Stink fame does the illustrations - illustrations that make the book seem like it might be written at a lower reading level than it really is. And, while it took me a chapter or two to realize I was wrong, I am thrilled to report that I am very, surprisingly, blissfully wrong!
Olivia Kidney as a character and a book is very engaging. Initially, the book seems like it is going to be a "real life" girl story about a twelve year old city kid who's Dad is a superintendent in one of the many multistoried apartment buildings in New York City. This seems especially so when two older girls make fun of Olivia's jeans while riding in the elevator and tease her about leaving class to visit the school's counseling servives. However, little things here and there indicate the possibility that Olivia's story might not be what it seems. After discovering she has lost her keys, a boy who says he is in Olivia's English class introduces himself as Branwell, oldest of eleven siblings, and offers to let her into the building and his apartment, if she needs a place to stay. Olivia declines, but does allow him to unlock the door of the lobby for her. From there, things only get stranger, and more interesting. I am tempted to say more, but Potter does such a fabulous job of writing a seemingly normal story, making the reader see things in one way, and then tweaking and twisting and sometimes leaping in an altogether different direction that you're not sure what to make of it, that I don't want to spoil any of her surprises. However, if you must know or if you have issues with ghosts, please read the spoiler below. Otherwise, skip to the last paragraph for my final comments and connections.
Olivia, although she does not know it when the story begins, is clairvoyant and can talk to ghosts. To others, it seems as though she is talking to invisible people and that is why she is seeing the school counselor. Also, in the course of the story we learn that her beloved brother who was eight years older than her and sounds and talks a little like Holden Caufield, has died recently and Olivia is still grieving this loss. To Olivia, she is talking, or trying to talk to her brother Christopher, not invisible people. That is why she has been reading his book on holding seances by Madam Brenda, a medium who is looking to retire and happens to be visiting Olivia's neighbor on the night this story takes place.
While locked out of her apartment, Olivia meets a series of neighbors with increasingly strange apartments and stranger life stories. She meets an old woman who sucks up and disposes of the dirty air in her apartment, in which everything, floors, faucets, tables, is made of glass. While peering at the downstairs neighbor through this woman's floor, Olivia watches as her baby almost ingests drain de-clogger, but Olivia saves him. She also encounters a neighbor with a steamy jungle in her apartment and hears a chilling story of piracy and a seeming Siren, a mythological creature who could play music that lured sailors to their deaths. After hearing this story she is almost killed by Master Clive himself, the dread pirate of the story. She escapes to the apartment of Branwell only to discover that his mother has turned one of the bedrooms into a barn and his siblings, while playing Charlie-in-a-Jam! have shoved their youngest brother, Charlie, into the incinerator chute and can only get him out by sending him down to the furnace which may or may not be turned on... While in the basement checking on the state of Charlie, Branwell shows Olivia the subbasement and a curious cylindrical brick structure in the middle of it. Her father discovers her down there, seemingly talking to herself and takes her home where they make brownies, only to be interrupted by her appointment downstairs with Madame Brenda and an explanation of the crazy events of the day and tips on how to channel her clairvoyant abilities.
The scene where Olivia's father finds her in the subbasement is very touching. The final scene, where she learns how to listen for her brother and talk to him is especially so. We learn a little bit about Olivia's mother in the story, but we do not learn why Christopher died. Maybe that is revealed in one of the other Olivia Kidney books. There are currently three in print - Olivia Kidney, Olivia Kidney Stops for No One and Olivia Kidney and the Secret Beneath the City. I plan to run out and read them all as soon as possible. I definitely recommend this book for readers who like ghost stories and surprises or books with interesting, sometimes fantastical characters. Ellen Potter is a very creative writer and her characters are compelling - I felt a connection and concern with Branwell and even Christopher, of whom very little is revealed, and of course with Olivia. While lighter in tone and depth, perhaps because it only takes place over the course of a day, Olivia Kidney reminded me in many ways of Polly Horvath's My One Hundred Adventures and her main character Jane Fielding. Jane meets some strange adults over the course of her summer and learns some interesting things about life and herself and, while she is not clairvoyant like Olivia, she encounters plenty of healers and seers and has her palm read by a thief. Stories that are journeys are subtle, gentle ways of enclosing larger messages, like learning to listen, into the text, and both Potter and Horvath are masters at doing this in rich, detailed stories that take place over a surprisingly short number of pages.