Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Romeo and Juliet Code

Maybe you haven’t noticed it, but I do not really like historical fiction.  Go ahead and flip back through my blog posts if you like; I’ll wait here.  See?  These are the books that I like best,  and while there are a couple of picture books with historical themes, there is no typical historical fiction.  And I’m really uninterested in reading historical fiction about World War II – I’ve read plenty, and unless I’ve heard enough buzz, I just won’t make the effort.  So you know that if I’m recommending historical fiction about World War II to you, it has to be pretty good.
Felicity arrives in Boothbay, Maine in May of 1941.  Her mother, Winnie, and her father, Danny, stay long enough to say goodbye, then leave Felicity to get to know her father’s family alone.  They are on their way back to London, where their work is, and leaving Felicity in the United States, where they believe she will be safe.  Britain has already been in the war for some time, so Felicity has grown used to deprivation, bombings, and dark, cold nights without electricity.  She arrives in Maine to find a family she’s never met, a seaside house that no one ever visits, and more secrets than even she can untangle.
Felicity is eleven years old, and her aunt Miami calls her an “odd duck”.  She is grown-up enough to have never called her mother and father anything but their first names (she often refers to them as “my Winnie” or “my Danny”) but still young enough to carry around a stuffed bear, Wink.  She is old enough to stay by herself late into the night in London when her parents are working, but young enough not to wonder why they are always so late, need language coaches for their jobs, or have abandoned her in Maine without even a forwarding address.
But it is obvious that Winnie and Danny are not the only people keeping secrets from Felicity.  Felicity’s uncle, Gideon, was visibly angry with Danny when they left Felicity, and neither Uncle Gideon or Felicity’s grandmother (called The Gram) will talk to Winnie.  Felicity doesn’t intend to eavesdrop , but she hears Uncle Gideon and The Gram talking about someone who is sick, hidden away somewhere in the house, named Captain Derek.  And Uncle Gideon often tries to connect with Felicity, even though she is sure she should stay angry with him after his behavior with Winnie and Danny.
I’m not going to ruin any of the mysteries  in this book by talking about them here.  There are many mysteries contained within these pages.  This story is told through Felicity’s point of view, and it is extremely limited at first.  Felicity believes what she is told, even when it doesn’t fit with what she has observed or overheard.  It takes a long time for her curiosity to kick in, and for her to start to wonder what is really going on in her family, both in Maine and abroad.  But once her curiosity begins, Felicity begins to investigate, to question and to rethin k what she’s seen and heard in the past.
I want to say something about the combination of the title and the cover.  The title refers to a code that Felicity must solve, not necessarily something romantic or tragic.  I think that the entangled boy/girl feet on the cover and the names Romeo and Juliet might make young readers believe there is more romance inside than there actually is.  There is no kissing, hand-holding or even entangled legs within – while Felicity does like someone, it is mostly unrequited, and I think the cover’s misconception might steer readers away who might otherwise have been attracted to its mystery, adventure and historical fiction combination.
I wonder if there are going to be inevitable comparisons to last year’s Newbery-winning Moon Over Manifest.  Both books include family secrets, and combine a mystery with historical fiction.  However, I feel that this book is much stronger than Moon Over Manifest.  I couldn’t get invested in the dual storyline of Manifest.  Here, within two chapters, I had put off all my naptime plans to sit down and finish this novel.  Felicity’s family is full of entertaining quirks which make them warm and exciting to be around.  While Felicity does look back, it is handled in conventional flashbacks to her time in Britain, and not in the more unwieldy dual storylines.  It helps Felicity piece together the solutions to her mysteries as she looks back and remembers details that seemed unimportant at the time.
One other thing I love about this book is that it isn’t tied up in a neat little bow at the end.  I actually liked that Felicity’s parents hadn’t come for her yet by the end of the novel, and in fact much of the mystery surrounding them hasn’t been solved.  But Felicity is in a safe, welcome place and that makes the ending happy still.  I hope this post has made you want to seek out this book and investigate its mysteries for yourself.  It’s well worth it.  Then comment here and let me know what you thought.
The Romeo and Juliet Code.  Phoebe Stone.  Arthur A. Levine Books: Scholastic, 2011.
Borrowed from Lewis & Clark library

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