Monday, August 06, 2012

In the Beginning: The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict by Trenton Lee Stewart

What Mr. Harinton was doing certainly helped Nicholas--but it also simply felt right to Nicholas.

No sooner had he thought this than he realized what was anchoring his happiness. It was purpose. He knew what he wanted to do.

Nicholas had something to aim for now.

He might not know what he wanted to be when he grew up, but he knew with absolute certainty how he wanted to be.

At the very least, he knew where to begin.

With three very sucessful series books behind him, author Trenton Lee Stewart takes us back to the beginning of the The Mysterious Benedict Society, the backstory behind benefactor Nicholas Benedict himself, in his recent prequel, The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict (The Mysterious Benedict Society) (Little, Brown, 2012).

The orphaned Nicholas Benedict has been dismissed from the waif's home where he has lived because his narcolepsy and screaming nightmares have caused untenable "administrative problems." In a Jane Eyre-style arrival amid a gloomy rain, Nicholas is driven from the station by the uncommunicative Mr. Collum, who seems displeased with the problems the nine-year-old Nicholas brings and preternaturally absorbed with the matter of an ancient, hand-written ledger from which his new charge seems an annoying distraction. Upon arrival at the dark and gloomy Rothchild's End, Nicholas is quickly shown the a dark windowless and crowded storeroom where his sole comfort is a cot and blanket, where Mr. Collum observes that Nicholas will be locked up nightly so that his sleepwalking and nightmares will not cause problems for the other student inmates.

As Mr. Collum relocks the door and escorts Nicholas to the bathroom before bedtime, however, Nicholas manages to convince the headmaster that he needs to use the key to get his forgotten toothbrush, and making use of the melted wax in the guttering hallway candle's sconce, he quickly makes a wax impression of Mr. Collum's key, which he happily speculates is a skeleton key that will unlock many doors in 'Child's End manor.

Nicholas is indeed a lad of many talents besides persuasion. He is a natural speed reader with a photographic memory and a lightning-quick mind, and after fashioning a duplicate key in metals crafting class, Nicholas decides that he will spend part of every night in the school's well-stocked library. Observing the headmaster serriptitonsly knocking on wooden panels in various rooms, Nicholas intuits that he is searching for some sort of hidden treasure and determines to give some of his midnight explorations over to deciphering the meaning of that old ledger-journal which Mr. Collum keeps locked in his office.

Indeed, there is an intriguing mystery there, the whereabouts of the inheritance of the mistress of the manor, Mrs. Rothchild. Nicholas Benedict believes that if he can find and claim what the journal calls her "treasure," it will be his escape from interminable years in institutions such as this one is turning out to be.

And while not quite the Dickensian orphanage where Oliver Twist suffered, "Child's End is aptly named for a boy like Nicholas. Befriended by only one boy, John Cole, Nicholas is shunned by the others because of his far-ranging vocabulary and his peculiar narcoleptic attacks, and little Nick also is selected for tormenting as the perennial victim of the school bullies, the "Spiders," seemingly under the noses of short-sighted and overburdened staff, including only an extremely myopic nurse, an elderly and arthritic housekeeper a equally superannuated cook, a reclusive caretaker/gardener, and a part-time schoolmaster.

Nicholas pins his hopes on discovering that treasure, and deduces from the accounts in the ledger than the Rothschilds had constructed an elaborate personal astronomiocal observatory on a hill in the area, and equipped with a lantern and alarm clock he has rebuilt from discards in the cellar and storeroom, Nicholas moves his midnight mission outdoors and eventually locates the abandoned observatory, where he is certain the treasure must be hidden. As time goes by, he confides in John and later in Violet,the deaf daughter of the local farmer whom the two meet in their nocturnal ramblings. Nicholas enlists both as confederates in the quest and the three hang their hopes on that treasure, a means to art school for Violet and an escape from orphanage life for John and Nicholas.

But as Nicholas Benedict's research and investigations continue, his simple theory of Mrs. Rothchild's vanished fortune is confounded, and the actual truth that he ultimately discovers changes everything for Nicholas forever.

Fans of the Mysterious Benedict Society's quirky young heroes and heroines will be fascinated by that peculiar Society's founder's childhood story and how the Society's own mission came to be. Stewart's narrative is as darkly atmospheric and labyrinthine as their midnight rambles, reminiscent as it is not only to Harry Potter's dark nighttime forays at Hogworts but also to the many Gothic mysteries of the late John Bellairs and the resourceful orphan family in Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events> Hard-core readers of the series will find the young Nicholas Benedict a delightfully off-beat character, from whom the redoubtable Benedict Society springs.

Previous books in this series include The Mysterious Benedict Society, The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey, The Mysterious Benedict Society: Mr. Benedict's Book of Perplexing Puzzles, Elusive Enigmas, and Curious Conundrums,
and The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner's Dilemma.

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