Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Love Boat: Secrets at Sea by Richard Peck

"Everybody has two futures," Aunt Fannie said.

"The future you choose. Or, the future that chooses you.

Here's your other future, Helena. The one you can choose. If you dare."

When the small-town nouveau riche Upstairs Cranstons decide to attend Queen Victoria's Jubilee Celebration in hopes of marrying off their sallow and unpromising older daughter, the Downstairs Cranston mouse family, headed by oldest sister Helena, faces a quandary. How will they live without the generous crumbs provided by the hearty-eating Cranstons and their clumsy cook Mrs. Flint? Helena decides to make the trek next door to the hidden home of her cousins to consult Aunt Fannie, the mouse matriarch of the clan and her crystal ball. What she learns is even more worrisome than the departure of the Upstairs Cranstons.

Not only is little sister Louise visiting the youngest Cranston daughter for nightly gossip as she suspected. It seems that her rascally little brother Lamont is skipping school and into all kinds of mischief with Gideon McSorley, bad-boy scion of the lowest-class mouse family around, and worse yet, middle sister Beatrice is slipping out at night to meet with this same rapscallion Gideon. That is the future that Aunt Fannie warns her of, the future that is sure to choose her family if she stays where she is.

But that other future is incredibly daunting to the Downstairs Cranstons. Their mother and two older sisters drowned in the rain barrel and they are justly terrified of water. But Aunt Fannie's fortunetelling is asking them to leave everything they treasure behind and stow away on the long ocean voyage to London in search of a different future.

And what a future it is in two-time Newbery-winning Richard Peck's newest novel for middle readers, Secrets at Sea (Dial, 2011).

Forsaking his usual boyish protagonists, Peck does not forsake his characteristic wry wit and eye for social absurdities in this sea adventure that combines harrowing escapes from the ship's one-eyed cat, storms at sea that nearly toss Helena into the drink, rubbing shoulders with both British human and mouse aristocracy. In a bit of matchmaking that would do the Bronte sisters proud, both the Cranstons' old maid daughter and her charming younger sibling and the mice sisters find their own fortune and heart's desire in shipboard romances. and even the wayward Lamont finds a respectable vocation at sea before their luxury liner docks. The brave Helena has embraced the risk and found a future for them all that she could never have imagined. As she wisely reflects,

"You can't go back, not in this life. You have to go forward."

Trying a bit of a new twist himself, Peck and his Victorian rodent tale take their place among the literary mouse aristocracy, alongside Kate DiCamillo's Newbery-winning The Tale of Despereaux, George Selden's classic Newbery book, The Cricket in Times Square (Chester Cricket and His Friends), and Newbery winner Lois Lowry's recent and delightful Bless This Mouse. (see my review here. ) Readers will be glad they set sail with Richard Peck, who is at the top of his witty adventurous tale-telling game here in Secrets at Sea.

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