Like William Faulkner and his Yoknapatwpha County, EL Konigsburg is adding to the books set in her mythical Epiphany, PA and sister city of St Malo, Florida. Along with The View From Saturday (1996), Silent to the Bone (2000), The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place (2004), the mysterious edge of the heroic world (2007) is set in St Malo with roots in and nods to Epiphany, PA. And, like Outcasts and From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler, mysterious revolves around works of art. In her most ambitious work yet, Konigsburg weaves aspects of the Nazi invasion of Holland, persecution of modern artists, homosexuals and gypsies as well as with Jews, the Stockholm Syndrome, Austrian Amnesia and questions of moral ambiguity throughout the novel.
The story begins with Amadeo Kaplan, named after his grandfather, who has just moved to St Malo, Florida after spending his whole life in New York City. Amadeo is the child of Loretta Bevilaqua and Jake Kaplan who met some thirteen years earlier in The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place. It is Amadeo's greatest wish to discover something in his lifetime. The combination of moving to a new house next to the eccentric Mrs Zender and her impending move to Waldorf Court, an assisted living community, provides the opportunity for him to do so, with some selfish maneuvering and manipulation on the part of Mrs Zender, also known as Aida Lily Tull. When Amadeo befirends William Wilcox, son of Dora Ellen Wilcox, the estate liquidator in the employ of Mrs Zender, he is granted entry into her house, which is full of amazing antiques and secrets.
As with her other books, adult characters are given as much space on the page as children characters, if not more. Aida Lily Tull, or Mrs Zender, is a largely (and large) unlikable character. She is self centered and ego driven, which is explained somewhat by her past. She was pushed into the profession of opera singer by her ambitious Italian mother, then, when her career seemed to be over, pushed into a marriage with Mr Zender, a worldly, elegant Austrian with a mysterious background. Peter Vanderwaal, childhood friend of Loretta Bevilaqua and Nadia Landau (mother of Margaret Rose Kane, star of The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place and supporting character in Silent to the Bone, which takes place some 10 - 15 years after the first book) is one of the many adults in the mysterious edge of the heroic world. Peter is important to the story as the curator of the Sheboygan Art Center, which is about to host a exhibit of Degenerate "Art." Degenerate "Art" refers to the sixteen thousand works of art confiscated (stolen) by a committee formed by Joseph Goebbels in an effort to rid the world of works that were unacceptable. Six hundred and fifty of these pieces were exhibited in a Munich warehouse in a show called Entartete "Kunst," or Degenerate "Art," the quotes meant to inform viewers that this, according to Hitler, was not really art. Peter is also important to the story because, early on in the book after his father's death, his mother (the same Mrs Vanderwaal who provides the security pass that allows Margaret to read transcripts of a city council meeting in Outcast) gives him a box containing his father's handwritten autobiography and some important documents.
Really, this book is part historical fiction. Between flashbacks of Peter's father's childhood in Amsterdam during WWII, where he was being raised by his older brother who ran an antiques and art shop with his partner Klaus, and Mrs Zender's reminisces of her family's history in St Malo and her travels as a performer in pre-WWII Europe, as well as the activities of her husband, much of this book takes place in the past despite being set in the present. As William and Amadeo help Mrs Wilcox dismantle and parcel out Mrs Zender's life as well as her life story, the sad history of Peter's father Johannes and his brother, Pieter unfolds alongside it. And the paths of these lives intersect. I won't reveal how they cross and crisscross because that is part of the discovery that Amadeo pieces together, but I can say that Konigsburg has done a remarkable job of highlighting aspects of the Nazi invasion and the atrocities committed as well as the secrecy and culpability of participants after the war was over. I think that, along with the very understated and still current theme of persecution of homosexuals, the aftermath of Hitler is an important part of history for our children to learn. While it is done very subtly, so subtly that I may be wrong, I belive that the character of Peter Vanderwaal is gay, which, even though it is never mentioned in the story, adds a layer to the plot that gives it depth.
In addition to the history that Konigsburg packs into the story, there are many mentions of artists, from Picasso and Matisse to Klimt, Modigliani and Chagall as well as writers (Harper Lee, Simone de Beauvoir.) She also has the charcter of Amadeo recite some really great short poems by Phyllis McGinley about art and artists. I love any book, but especially a children's book, that refers to other books and works of art, as well as historical figures and events. I think this kind of reference is such a great way to self-educate and I am sure that it accounts in part for my love of reading. And, after all, we want our children to read and to love reading because we want them to learn to think for themselves and educate themselves so that they have the desire to spend their whole lives learning and growing.