Friday, May 04, 2012

Different! The Bell Bandit by Jacqueline Davies

Everything about this trip to Grandma's house was different.

For Jessie, Christmas and New Year's are supposed to be the same each year, a trip to Grandma's farmhouse and ringing Grandma's old bell on Lowell Hill at midnight on New Year's.

But this year, even the trip itself is different. Because of a fire started when Grandma left a kettle on the stove and an arm broken when she ran for help, Jessie and Evan had to stay home for Christmas and drive up to take care of Grandma when she is discharged from the hospital just before New Year's Eve. Evan won't sit in the backseat with Jessie and play their usual car games, but instead is lost in his mp3 player in the front seat. Grandma's house has huge holes burned in the kitchen wall and upstairs bedroom; the antique bell is gone from its scaffold on the top of the hill; and Grandma herself can't seem to remember who Evan and Jessie are and which decade she's living in.

In the kitchen, Jessie's mom was trying to take Grandma's coat off, but Grandma kept twisting away, saying it was time to feed the chickens.

Chickens! But Jessie knew that Grandma didn't keep chickens anymore, not since Jessie was just a little kid.

"I'll feed the chickens, Mrs. Joyce." said Evan. Why was Evan calling Grandma "Mrs. Joyce"?

"You don't know how!" said Grandma, angrily. "Susan, stop it!" She swatted at Jessie's mom and twisted away. "I have chores to do!"

"Yes, I do," said Evan. "I used to feed the chickens for you all the time." Jessie though his voice sounded like it was being squeezed out of a toothpaste tube. "The feed is in the barn in the barrel to the left of the door."

"Did you?" Grandma looked at Evan. "Well, all right, then."

But Jessie loves a mystery, and she fixes her hopes on finding the family's missing antique bell. Somehow she feels that if it can be restored to its place and if she and Grandma can ring it together on midnight, everything will go back to the way it was. Evan is uninterested, absorbed in being the "man of the family," helping Pete, the carpenter hired to repair the fire damage. Jessie is forced to turn for help to a new neighbor, Maxwell, a very bright but very different ten-year-old, whose amazing abilities and strange personal mannerisms make her wonder if he can be any real help in putting everything back the way it is supposed to be.

Mom goes to town to keep an appointment with her mother's insurance agent, leaving Evan at home to watch Grandma, and Jessie slips off in the late afternoon to find Maxwell and try to locate the missing bell before midnight. When Grandma insists on taking a short walk outside, Evan hurries to find his parka and boots, but finds her gone when he comes outside. Calling and searching are no good, and Evan knows he needs Jessie, the one who's good at figuring out puzzles, to help him guess where Grandma can be.

More snow begins to fall. It's growing dark, and when Evan finds Jessie, at first even she is no help. But then she remembers the sturdy tepee she and Evan built two summers ago out in the woods. Grandma had said it would last forever, and Jessie hopes that, lost and confused, Grandma may have gone there for shelter.

Things change, and not always for the better, and in the third book in her heralded Lemonade War Series, the just published The Bell Bandit (The Lemonade War Series) (Houghton Mifflin, 2012) skillfully provides the requisite conflicts and suspense while developing a far deeper theme, how a family deals with changes that are not always for the good in their own lives. Told from the dual points of view of the sensitive older Evan and precocious eight-year-old Jessie, who matures as she learns that dealing with these differences, even Maxwell's different way of perceiving reality, takes a new kind of problem-solving for her logical mind and a new sensitivity to the puzzle that is life. With this highly readable and yet emotionally powerful novel, Davies is proving herself one of the best writers for the middle grades around.

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