Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Ensemble! The Applewhites at Wit's End by Stephanie Tolan

It was a dark and stormy night when Rudolph Applewhite arrived home from New York to announce the end of the world.

It's not an approaching Apocalypse that the hyperbolic head of the kooky Applewhite household and noted theatre director announces. It's the iconic financial cliff, caused by a dastardly embezzlement of investment funds, that threatens the foreclosure of their creative enclave and homeschooling operation based in a former off-the-beaten path motor lodge now appropriately christened "Wit's End." Although the clan's various artistic endeavors are marginally profitable, the ongoing payments of their mortgage are in jeopardy unless the Applewhites can gen up a generous infusion of cash before autumn.

The various adult artists--mystery writer, furniture and wood sculpture stylists, assorted dancers, poets, photographers, and the four talented Applewhite children--brainstorm a solution--a creative summer camp named Eureka! for gifted children. The burden of organization falls largely on thirteen-year-old E.D., the "non-creative" Applewhite and the only one with managerial skills, who soon creates spreadsheets, data bases, and schedules for the "counselors," all members of the eccentric clan except foster kid, Jake Semple, city bad boy kicked out of every school system in Rhode Island and now a promising musical comedy star.

Only six kids finally show up on Eureka's opening day, all self-centered kids between eleven and fourteen, all obviously gifted in albeit strange ways and all pampered by their own self-absorbed but wealthy parents. There are the identical twins, talented whiner Cinnamon and cheery poet Ginger, who only wear blue and green, David, a singer whose Botticelli-angel good looks cause the sensible E.D. to be instantly smitten, "Q," a likewise talented singer and dancer who becomes David's instant rival, Harley, son of uber-tattooed punk-rock star parents, whose only interest seems to be photographing dead stuff, and Samantha, a talented, uh, reader with no interest in anything.

With only six clients, the Applewhites pinch their pennies and being creative, improvise materials with the help of E.D.'s detailed workshop schedules, hoping to scrape through the summer with enough money to save their homestead. Unfortunhately, the campers, all free spirits themselves, revolt against E.D.'s rigid rounds of compulsory seminars. The Applewhites are forced to ditch the well-rounded workshop format and punt--winging it with an ensemble effort that gradually creates a dynamic esprit de corps among the diverse campers as well.

And it is a good thing they succeed, because Rudolph begins to receive poison pen letters threatening to report the many supposed violations of state regulations for summer camps to the authorities. And when a dark-suited, clipboard-toting "official" is spotted, lurking in the woods and taking notes and samples of their somewhat rustic and mucky-bottomed pond in use as camp swimming pool, the Applewhites swing into joint defensive action, provided with a uniquely creative plan devised by Jake and E.D. and starring all the campers who are now in cahoots to keep the camp open. Even their portly Bassett hound Winston and bellicose billy goat Wolfbane get in on the act as the family comes up with their most creative and dramatic ensemble improvisation yet.

Stephanie Tolan's sequel to her Newbery-winning Surviving the Applewhites, the delightful Applewhites at Wit's End (HarperCollins, 2012) again focuses on Jake, he of the piercings and iconic Mohawk, and the sensible E.D., she of the spreadsheets and logical mind, who again prove their value to their quirky nuclear family (and begin a promising romantic attraction) as main characters. Not since Helen Cresswell's The Bagthorpes saga has such a eccentricly creative family won similar kudos from reviewers and a following from middle readers. Let's hope that Tolan comes up with more ensemble performances from the bizarre but lovably diverse Applewhites.

“Tolan has pulled off something special here.” says Booklist in a coveted starred review.

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