The Aviary, by Kathleen O'Dell, 337pp, RL 4
The Aviary is now in paperback! Just in time for summer, this historical mystery with a glimmer of magic will keep you reading late into the night to see how it ends!
What I love most about working as a bookseller is the opportunity I get to talk to other kid's book enthusiasts, be they kids or adults. I am especially grateful for the interactions I have with school librarians as they are always a font of knowledge and inspiration. The Aviary by Kathleen O'Dell jumped out at me from the shelf the minute it arrived at the bookstore with its distinctive green cover. However, the black silhouette artwork felt a little bit too much like other recent releases and, while I read the flap and was intrigued, didn't take it home with me. Then, a week or so later, one of my favorite librarians came in and casually mentioned that The Aviary was fabulous and I read it in a matter of days, both because it was fabulous and because it was very hard to put down. A mystery, O'Dell does a masterful job of meting out clues and unfolding her story and it will be a challenge not to reveal too much here.
The Aviary is a gothic tale full of period detail that is set around the turn of the century in Lockhaven, Maine. Our heroine, Clara Dooely, is an almost-twelve-year old girl living like a ghost in the Glendoveer mansion. Some fifty years earlier, George Glendoveer was the greatest, most famous magician living and was credited for taking his art form from the streets to the theaters. Now, his aged widow Cenelia is nearing the end of her life, alone but for Ruby, her cook and Harriet, Clara's mother, as her housekeeper and caretaker who live very frugally in the once regal home. Because of her weak heart, Clara spends all her time locked up in the house with Mrs Glendoveer as her teacher. When a violent storm knocks down trees and rips the shutters off the front windows of the house Clara gets a glimpse at the wider world outside and the world, or at least Daphne Aspinal, gets a glimpse of her. Daphne is a bit of an Anne Shirley, adventurous, enthusiastic, eager to see justice done and injustices righted. When she sees Clara in the window, she slips a heartfelt letter under the front door of the Glendoveer mansion and a secret friendship begins. My favorite line in the book comes when, after encouraging a wary Clara to sneak out to the Lockhaven Historical Society to poke around for clues, Clara says she cannot disobey her mother in that way. To this, Daphne counters, "Clara? Shall we be honest? You have been disobeying your mother for some time now." It is always a good thing to have such a direct and forthcoming friend when there is a mystery to be solved.
Besides a decades old mystery, the Glendoveer mansion is also home to an enormous black iron aviary that is home, still, to the five birds that George Glendoveer used as part of his act. While Ruby tends to the birds as best she can, they "flutter and scream as if they were on fire, grasping at the bars with their sharp claws" whenever anyone besides Mrs Glendoveer approaches their cage. They seem to get especially frantic when, on rare occasions, Clara nears their home. When, after the storm, Mrs Glendoveer is anxious to know that her birds are safe, she begs Clara to check on them. Despite her fears, she makes her way to the aviary where the birds take up their usual cacophony, only this time Clara detects a word - a name - among the shrieks. Knowing that the mynah and the cockatoo once spoke, she rushes back into the house to tell Mrs Glendoveer that one of the birds definitely spoke the name "Elliott." Amazed, Mrs Glendoveer has Clara retrieve a locked scrapbook from which she pulls an old photograph of a woman "in an old-fashioned gown, seated in a cane chair and holding an infant with bright black eyes." Mrs Glendoveer tells Clara that they did not have Elliott for long. Clara tells her, "I always knew you must have had a child. I felt it . . . Maybe because you have always been so understanding of me." Clara doesn't realize it at the time, but this revelation is the first clue in a mystery that she has grown up around with out even knowing it.
The talking birds, the revelation that there once was a Glendoveer baby and the appearance of Daphne combine to stir curiosity and discontent in Clara's previously quiet, contented life. In Harriet, Clara's mother, O'Dell has created a believably strong-willed, protective, impoverished mother who, understandably, keeps her ailing daughter sheltered. Even when Harriet's true reasons for keeping Clara locked away are revealed they are remain believable and part of the whole cloth of the story. And, because of the tenacious love both Harriet and Ruby and even Mrs Glendoveer have for Clara she is an authentically happy child. In this, O'Dell brilliantly overcomes a major aspect of a mystery and/or fantasy novel - how to explain the unknowing state of the protagonist who eventually will become enlightened and how to make this enlightenment credible within the context of the story. Clara's home life provides a very feasible situation for her innocence and solitude and for her sleuthing as well as a setting that makes it possible for her, with the help of Daphne, to realistically uncover the mystery at the heart of the story. Usually, this problem is solved by making the protagonist an orphan and I applaud Ms O'Dell for finding a way around that scenario.
Hopefully I have given you enough of a taste of The Aviary above to entice you to read it. If you don't have time to read everything your child does and want to know more of the story before passing it on, read on. However, O'Dell does such a fantastic, suspenseful job with her story that I hate to take any of the surprise away for any potential reader...
Shortly after the mynah bird says the name "Elliott," Mrs Glendoveer dies, setting the story in motion. A provision in the will of her husband and herself calls for their home to remain open for exactly fifty years to the day after the loss of Elliott as well as providing for the care of the birds. At the time of her death, this date is four months away. While Mrs Glendoveer has left the house to Harriet and Ruby, they are bound not to sell it until the anniversary passes. When Daphne's cat sneaks into the aviary and injures the honeycreeper, Clara comes to the bird's (and the cat's) rescue and keeps the injured bird in her room, nursing it back to health. She also begins to explore the house when her mother and Ruby are out, a rare occasion that is necessitated by the death of Mrs Glendoveer and the details of her estate. During these excursions Clara learns that, besides Elliott, the Glendoveers had five other children who were kidnapped by their nanny. The children and the nanny drowned when the boat she was trying to row to a distant island broke up in a storm. Elliott was never found, leaving the Glendoveer's to believe that he might still be alive and could return home one day. With a friend to share her room with, Clara begins talking to the honeycreeper and finds that the bird seems to be answering her with chirps and double chirps for "yes" and "no." As Clara uncovers more clues, she turns to the bird to help her make sense of what she is finding, especially some cryptic notes George Glendoveer left regarding "The Book of H" and a spell from "the Paheri tomb." It is Daphne who uncovers the identity of a Mr Woodruff T Booth, the man who offered a $25,000 reward for the return of the Glendoveer children before their bodies were found. As these two threads unwind, the girls find that they are also connected. Clara begins to realize that the birds in the aviary are somehow possessed by the souls of the five eldest Glendoveers and will be until Elliott returns home. As Clara spends more and more time with the birds, talking to them and reading to them, the ability to speak returns to mynah and the cockatoo and they convince Clara that Elliott is still alive and she must bring him home. the ghost of Mrs Glendoveer even makes a handful of brief appearances that are both haunting and comforting. In a very suspenseful climactic scene, Clara and Daphne, though they think they are prepared for every possible outcome, put themselves in a very dangerous situation by tempting Mr Woodruff to come to the Glendoveer mansion to retrieve an important document. With the help of the birds, the girls fight off Woodruff's gun toting thug and force Woodruff to reveal the true story of the kidnapping and the whereabouts of Elliott. O'Donnell balances the climax with a very touching scene in the nursery of the Glendoveer mansion that is most satisfying and rewarding for the characters in The Aviary and the readers alike.
While I revealed a bit more than I wanted to, there is one big surprise that I have kept from you. I hope that you will not hesitate to read this rare and wonderful book or pass it on to any girl (let's face it, a boy probably won't read this book) who has a love of historical fiction, mystery and even a touch of magic. The Aviary is not to be missed!
Books that reminded me, a bit, of The Aviary...
A Drowned Maiden's Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz, one of my all time favorites that also concerns the death of a child, ghosts and a haunting.