Thursday, March 24, 2011

Family Secrets: The Kneebone Boy by Ellen Potter

That night, Lucia lay in her bed, listening to nothing. The sound of nothing is the most ominous sound in the world. It's the sound a cat makes a second before it lunges for a mouse and sinks its arrow tippy teeth into the poor thing's neck. The sound of nothing was also the sound that Casper made right before he was about to leave them.

It's not for nothing that their schoolmates in the town of Little Tunk give the Hardscrabble kids a wide berth. Thirteen-year-old Otto never speaks--hasn't made an audible sound since his mother went missing when he was eight--and there's that black scarf around his neck, which along with his long blond hair, covers most of his pale face. Lucia (that's Lu-chee-ah, thank you) and Max are bright enough, maybe too bright to get along with their mundane age mates, so the kids stick with each other.

Their dad, Casper, is an odd one, too, making his living by painting portraits of the far-flung remnants of the world's cast-off royalty, a craft which often requires absences of several weeks and means that the children are sloughed off to stay with the ascerbic and misnamed Mrs. Carnival, an unimaginative village lady who obviously tolerates them only for the money.

Now, just as Lucia senses her father is about to be off again over their summer break, a letter comes from a mysterious relative, Great-Aunt Haddie Piggitt of Snoring-by-the-Sea, which ends with a thought-provoking P.S.:

What do the children know about their mother?

P.P.S. If the answer is "Yes," don't you think it's time you told them?

But just as the strong-minded Lucia is about to pursue this mystery, their father whisks them off to the railway station and puts them on the train to London to stay with his distant cousin Angela. Angela, however, is nowhere to be found when they arrive at her apartment, and when her dogwalker arrives to find the Hardscrabbles awakening from a rough layover in the hall, she tells them that Angela is off for a holiday in Germany. The Hardscrabbles reluctantly agree that there's nothing for it but to return to Little Tunks and throw themselves upon the none-too-gentle mercies of Mrs. Carnival until Casper's return. But on the way back to the station the kids are so frightened by a tattooed mugger that they abandon their bags, and escaping, find themselves stranded with very little money--only enough, it seems, to take the train to the nearby Snoring-by-the-Sea and seek refuge with the mysterious Great-Aunt Haddie.

Haddie, however, is not the expected elderly pensioner. She is a youngish and definitely offbeat woman who claims to have been their mother's only slightly older aunt and who has taken a summer rental of the Kneebone Castle's folly, a quirky but intriguing model of the deserted castle made for the children of the former owners, complete with scaled-down drawbridge, a miniature dungeon with mechanical rats where the children are put to bed, and a reputed underground secret passageway to the castle itself. Haddie feeds them on her despicably American peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and soup heated in her Bunsen burner, and regales them with stories of the folly's oddities and the neighborhood legend, The Kneebone Boy, a supposedly horribly hairy and deformed older brother of the folly's former residents kept prisoner somewhere in the castle.

The whole experience is exceedingly odd, even for the Hardscrabbles, admittedly the odd ones back in their own environs, but Max and Lucia especially are captivated by the Kneebone Boy tale and set out, with Haddie's nonchalant blessing, to discover the secrets of Kneebones' strange home and especially that secret passage.

How the resourceful Hardscrabbles solve that mystery and not incidentally one of their own makes for an amusing, absorbing, and suspenseful Gothic tale of a summer break like no other. What the three find at the end of that perilous, literally cliff-hanging secret passage changes everything for them and reveals mysteries, not of the Kneebone family so much as their own--including why Otto never takes off that black scarf.

Ellen Potter's The Kneebone Boy (Feiwel & Friends, 2010) is no sunny suburban mystery for a summer's day, but as a mystery/adventure, it has its own eccentric charm, rather like that of a Lemony Snicket with heart. The intrepid Hardscrabbles are an endearing and refreshing trio of young heroes, and the narrator (unrevealed but surely Lucia) has a memorable voice. As Kirkus Reviews succinctly says, "A quirky charmer." It is that.

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