The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart, illustrations by Carson Ellis, 496 pp, RL 5
The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart, illustrations by Carson Ellis (best known for her cover art for her husband's band The Decemberists and illustrator of Lemony Snicket's picture book, The Composer is Dead) is the wildly popular first book in what is soon to be a trilogy with books two and three being illustrated by Diane Sudyka, another wonderful artist with a style very similar to Ellis'. There is a fabulous website for the book called the The Curiosity Chronicle.
This book begins with Reynard, or Reynie, Muldoon, an orphan who has decided to answer a newspaper add that reads, "ARE YOU A GIFTED CHILD LOOKING FOR SPECIAL OPPORTUNITIES?" At this point, any reader who finds this add intriguing, especially any reader who feels that he or she would also answer this add, will plunge into this hefty book, headlong and happily, I suspect. I know that the eleven-year-old me, a bookworm on the social fringe with notions of specialness, would have gobbled this book up. The gifted children in question are invited to take a test. The four who pass, Reynie, Sticky (George) Washington, Kate Wetherall and Constance Contraire, find themselves in the presence of the mysterious Mr Benedict, a narcoleptic, and his small coterie of asisstants - Rhonda Kazembe, Milligan and Number Two. Mr Benedict welcomes them warmly into his home, gives them a secret mission and cryptic advice and thanks them for taking on such a dangerous task.
What is the danger and what is the task? Although it mostly spoken of in passive terms, the "Emergency," as it is generally referred to, fills the headlines of the papers and the news broadcasts every day. The Emergency seems to be a general decline of western civilization with "the school systems, the budget, the pollution, the crime, the weather" and everything in a "complete mess and citizens everywhere were clamoring for a major - no, a dramatic - improvement in government." The Emergency and what, or who, is causing it is at the heart of Mr Benedict's research and what he hopes to defeat. The task he gives the children is to infiltrate a school, The Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened (L.I.V.E.), being run by a reclusive genius, Ledroptha Curtain, who just might be behind these drastic changes for the worse in the world. The Institute is on Nomansan Island (there are a handful of puns like this sprinkled throughout the book) and the children will be alone there with only a flashlight and Morse code as a means of communicating with Mr Benedict and his crew.
Ensconced in the school, the children are forced to learn ridiculous phrases by rote and follow absurd rules such as, "You can wear whatever you want, just so long as you have on trousers, shoes and a shirt. You can bathe as often as you like or not at all, provided you're clean everyday in class, " and so on. There are Messengers, children who are at the top of their class and have "special privileges," and Executives, who are older children who have been promoted from the position of Messenger and keep order in the school. There are also Helper, mute, down trodden adults who appear to be fearful and sad as they go about the duties of keeping the Institute in order. As Reynie and Sticky move to the top of their class and the children begin to unravel the mysteries surrounding the special privileges and the secrets being kept by Mr Curtain, they discover what is at the source of the Emergency and what Mr Curtain's plans are for ending it and taking control of the world.
As some of you know, I have been struggling with this book for months now. Reading in fits and starts, I found it necessary to re-read certain passages in order to pick up threads or try to make sense of obtuse plot points. I am sorry to say that I did not enjoy this book. While I have reviewed one other book that I did not enjoy, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo, I did so because I felt like adults were rushing out to buy this beautiful book for the children in their lives without realizing what the story was really about. Trenton Lee Stewart's The Mysterious Benedict Society requires no such warning on my part. His book is innovative, unique (although a bit derivative, if that's possible) and I have no doubt that my complaints with the book are addressed and improved upon in the subsequent books in this series. I would and often do suggest this book to customers who are avid readers, approximately ages 8 - 12 and seem to be drawn in by the cover art, just as I was. And, I know for a fact that there are many kids and parents out there who thoroughly enjoyed this book. There is something for both boy and girl readers to connect with and appreciate.
Readers who liked this book might also enjoy:
Dale Peck's two Drift House books which I loved.
For mysteries slightly less weighty, Blue Balliett's Chasing Vermeer, The Wright 3 and The Calder Game might be of interest.
Elise Broach has also written two wonderful mysteries, Masterpiece and Shakespeare's Secret.
For something a tiny bit different but exemplary of what I consider excellent writing, check out Frances Hardinge's Fly By Night and Linda Archer-Buckley's superb Time Travelers Trilogy.