Small Spaces by Katherine Arden, 224 pp, RL 4
Small Spaces by Katherine Arden
Exclusive Edition Purchased
from Barnes & Noble
With Small Spaces, Katherine Arden has created exactly the kind of creepy, scary story I love to read and, even better, am thrilled to share with my students. And, at a little over 200 pages, it is perfect for both their ability and stamina.
Arden spends a generous amount of time with the protagonist and the setting for this story, both of which are superb. Olivia "Ollie" Arden is a sixth grader in East Evansburg, Vermont, living in a colorful house with her colorfully creative father who knits, bakes, paints and more. When we first meet her, she is in math class trying, like a cat, to catch the "last warm sun of the year" as it slants through the sugar maples and into her classroom. Arden does a masterful job of bringing the feeling fall in New England, both the beauty of the changing leaves and sweater weather, and the bleak barrenness of impending winter. Ollie is a voracious reader, competitive chess player and pitcher with a great arm and a powerful sense of justice who isn't afraid to throw a rock now and then. She has also become a loner, avoiding everyone when she can, tending to a trauma that is not fully revealed until well into the story. But, when she sees a distraught woman at her favorite spot for solitude - the swimming hole near the Lethe River - talking to herself and on the verge of throwing a book into the water, Ollie steals the book, titled Small Spaces, and rides off on her bike. But not before the woman can warn her to, "Avoid large places at night . . . Keep to the small."
Ollie is drawn into the story of the book immediately, a story written by a mother to her daughter in 1895. Both an explanation and a warning, author Beth Webster shares the history of herself and her husband and the tragedy that struck his brother, then him, brought on, in part, by the specter of "the smiling man," maker of bargains. As Ollie reads her book and rebuffs attempts by classmates Coco, a big-eyed, strawberry blonde city transplant, and Brian, a Jamaican born, middle school hockey star who secretly loves to read, she begins to see connections between the book Small Spaces and the history of her town. When a school field trip to the very farm where events of the book took place ends with a broken down school bus, Ollie begins to put the pieces of the story and recent events together, heading out for what she hopes is safety. Instead, she finds herself, with Coco and Brian tagging along, in a strange limbo world of ghosts and humans-turned-scarecrows with rakes and trowels for hands - and an immediate understanding of the strange advice to stick to small spaces at night.
Arden's novel is the perfect mix of creepy and suspense, with the real horror in the story coming from the choices humans make when they love and lose and are trapped by their choices and sadness. Her characters are unforgettable, as is the charming (when not haunted) town of East Evansburg. Happily, Ollie, Coco and Brian, along with Ollie's loving, connected dad, are back for another haunting story in Dead Voices - set at a newly build ski resort with the curious signage: Mount Hemlock Resort: A Mountain of Awesome Where Winter Never Ends... If you purchase the paperback Exclusive Edition of Small Spaces from Barnes & Noble, you can read the first chapter of Dead Voices!