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splendors and glooms

22 february 2014

Laura Amy Schlitz won the 2008 Newbery Medal for Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, a book I haven't yet reviewed here because I can't think of a single intelligent thing to say about it. I was more inspired by her 2013 Honor Book Splendors and Glooms, though that is far from a guarantee that I will have anything intelligent to say in this review.

Splendors and Glooms is a historical fantasy: witchcraft and metamorphosis in Victorian England, plus the motif of the cursed magic talisman, with a dash of crime and a substrate of Dickens. Schlitz's novel reminds me a bit of the juvenile fiction of Carlos Ruiz Zafón, and vaguely of Brian Selznick's Invention of Hugo Cabret. Outcast kids meet magic and technology in a richly embroidered past. There are touches of Lemony Snicket and some Harry Potter overtones. You'll like the genre or hate it; but even if you love it, the characters have to be intriguing and the plotting strong.

Fortunately they are. Splendors and Glooms likes its characters so much that it lingers over them, but the reader will like them too (at least I did), and hope that they'll overcome the perils that their creator boxes them into. It's a long novel, leisurely despite a continual undertone of suspense and quite a few surprises. In particular, it has an unusually long denouement. Most children's adventure novels either want to wrap things up with a bang or leave them hanging for the sequel. Splendors and Glooms seems to want to follow its characters out of the extraordinary back into the happy ever after. It doesn't want to let them go.

I didn't like the ambiguous witch or the sinister puppet-master (I wasn't supposed to); I did like the three children at the heart of the story: rich little Clara and poor little Lizzie Rose and Parsefall. I have a feeling that I'm your basic 11-year-old implied reader locked in the body of a 55-year-old English professor.

Clara is the last living daughter of a wealthy physician. Her birthdays since her siblings (including her twin brother) died have been spent at the cemetery, so she is mad for some sort of comic relief on the one that dawns with the novel: she wants a puppet show. There's an awesome one playing on a street near hers, consisting of a grisly guy named Grisini and his two youthful helpers, the aforementioned Lizzie Rose and Parsefall. Grisini emotionally abuses these orphans, while treating them like the puppets he commands. In fact, he sort of has this thing about turning children into puppets …

All hell breaks loose shortly after Grisini's puppet theatre plays at Clara's birthday party. I don't know if Splendors and Glooms contains the phrase "all hell breaks loose," but it might. Its language is grownup, if on the PG-13 side, and it doesn't patronize its readers. Grisini speaks a broken English laced with Italian phrases, and the reader has to figure them out from context: no coy attempts to teach a foreign language here. Splendors and Glooms will stretch the vocabulary of most kid readers, and most of their parents, for that matter.

Lizzie Rose is the only highly-literate character, though. I was hoping to get through an entire Newbery winner without the obligatory scene where a kid is addicted to reading. It didn't happen here, but it wasn't foregrounded, either. In the latter half of the book, the witch Cassandra invites Lizzie Rose and Parsefall to take anything they want from her house as a Christmas present. Parsefall takes whatever's easiest to hock. Lizzie Rose takes Shakespeare, natch.

Much of our attention is focused on Lizzie Rose, though it's shared with the other kids and even the adults. Schlitz uses a subtle technique of switching perspective in mid-chapter, often without even a whitespace break. She moves among the minds of her characters, and in their magical world, they sometimes move within one another's minds. Lizzie Rose also has the benefit of heightened sensibility. She is hyperosmic, finding her way in the world by smell as much as any other sense. Hyposmic myself, I was fascinated by the rich palette of sense impressions that Schlitz brings to life via Lizzie Rose.

Schlitz, Laura Amy. Splendors and Glooms. Somerville, MA: Candlewick, 2012. Electronic Edition.

As much as I liked Splendors and Glooms, I can't leave it without one quibble. Grisini kidnaps Clara and demands a ransom of ten thousand pounds. Clara's father Dr. Wintermute sticks the money in his pocket and goes out to deliver it, whereupon the usual things that go wrong in ransom-delivery scenes commence to go wrong. But it's supposedly 1860. Two problems: one, a kidnapper wouldn't want £10,000 in a form that somebody could carry around in his pocket. It might be possible to get ten £1000 notes, but they would be completely traceable and harder than hell to break. Even a pound note would be traceable, and a thousand of them would be hard to carry. To say nothing of lugging around a thousand sovereigns.

And even a pound note, let alone a £10 or a £20, would be a large bill, never popular among kidnappers. A pound in 1860 would buy about what $150 buys today, in very rough terms. Which brings us to the second problem: where does Clara's father get £10,000 in cash – the equivalent of a million and a half today? Remember that that was a year's income for the fabulously rich Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, just over a generation before. Phineas Finn, in Trollope's Palliser novels, lives on a couple of hundred a year and gets into significant debt difficulties over three-figure sums. Even well into the next century, Virginia Woolf would estimate £500 a year as enough to bring independence to a woman writer.

Dr. Wintermute is supposed to be well-off, and I can imagine that a top physician of 1860, especially if he'd inherited wealth, might be worth £10,000 all told – but he seems to raise the sum without a hitch, and not to be fixing to miss it any more than a well-off doctor today would miss $10,000. It doesn't add up.