February 12, 2013

WCOB: Through the Hidden Door, Rosemary Wells

Well, sure we all know who Rosemary Wells is. She's the one who does the bunnies! The adorable bunnies! The cuddly bunnies! The fabulous Ruby and Max! Oh, and Nora, Yoko, and McDuff, too, but mostly we know her from Ruby and Max.

So, how did we go from cuddly Bunnycakes and other cutenesses to a novel which, nominated for the 1988 Edgar, gives Cormier's THE CHOCOLATE WAR a run for its money in the dark and vicious category? An author whose skill encompasses both bunnies and psychological torment - for middle graders? I was intrigued... It's another Wicked Cool Overlooked Book!

Reader Gut Reaction: This book was first published in 1987, and for the first few pages, you know it. Good grief, Sperry Topsiders. Polo cologne. The names of the students are also a little dated - I don't know the last time I've met a Barney, do you? I mean, at least one under seventy or so. But, names and name brands fall away after the first few pages of this novel. You're very much grounded in time at The Winchester School for Boys, with the operative word being grounded. Our main character has never been able to get up off the ground, and an opportunity to eat yet more dirt comes within the first few pages...

Concerning Character: Poor Barney Penniman is never going to achieve greatness. To hear his father tell it, greatness is all about going to the Right School in the Right part of the country, graduating with Honors and going on to do what you want, and the world is your oyster. Unfortunately, oysters are kind of like gobs of snot to Barney, and there's a lot of doing what other people want before you ever get to do as you please. At thirteen, Barney fears a future of ordinariness, so he falls in with his father's plan, leaving his life in the West, and going back East for polish and class, as once was the tradition. Unfortunately, along with polish, Barney is gaining tarnish. He fears being diliked, being tormented about his lisp, being the bottom of the heap and being alone, so once he's at Winchester, where old money and snobbery prevail, he does what others do - which is to side with the bullies and do what it takes to stay off the receiving end of their pranks.

While Barney has a good heart, he's occasionally really dense. What it means to be a friend, and what it means to be a total TOOL are confused concepts for him. He's one big, sweaty, anxious ball of reaction, instead of action. Tell him to eat a random mushroom in the woods - he'll do it, and then have to go to the ER to have his stomach pumped. Bullied into a "study" session the next test, he not only gives away his notes, but teaches his so-called friends to write the answers on the insoles of their shoes. But, when his so-called friends sadistically attack a helpless dog, Barney can't keep silent. The headmaster finds out, and it's over: Barney can either save himself, or everyone else. He tries to take the blame for what he hasn't done, knowing what's coming to him, but a wise headmaster knows his students. To his horror, he tells the truth - and that's it, game over. The life of a snitch at Winchester is one big bruise.

Meanwhile, there's Snowy Cobb. He's only a sixth-grader, and without his coke-bottle thick glasses, he's legally blind. He's secretive, weird, and has skulls all over the bookshelves in his room. Barney isn't inclined to seek him out, but he's the only one Barney feels safe with, secreted in the back of the library. It turns out that Snowy knows things - more than anyone suspects. He's willing to share what he knows of a secret, magical place, if Barney is willing to be brave, get cold, filthy, and blindfolded... and keep his mouth shut. So far, Barney's not batting a thousand with choice of friends. Is it worthwhile to trust anyone...?

Recommended for Fans Of...: brutal boarding school novels, like The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier, Looking for Alaska, John Green, and Black Boy, White School, by Brian F. Walker; moody bad-friend novels like Tangerine by Edward Bloor; mysterious books, like The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin, and archaeology books like the Theodosia novels, by Robin LaFevers, Blossom Culp, And the Sleep of Death, by Richard Peck, The Serpent's Shadow, by Rick Riordan, and more. Adventure and peril for the win!

Themes & Things: I find it amusing that so many of the novels of the 80's were about how CRAPTACULAR the boarding-school experience can be. "The more expensive a school is, the more crooks it has - I'm not kidding," says Holden Caufield of Pency Prep, in The Catcher in the Rye. Clearly, by the Potter years, the American public had forgotten how much they used to hate boarding schools, but man, for awhile there, every boarding school was Pure Evil - at least for the boys. (LORD OF THE FLIES, anyone? They were a boarding school not boarding.) Before there were Mean Girls, there were mean boys, and they are comprehensively more brutal and more frightening this time around. There's a real sense of menace from both Mr. Silks - the new headmaster, who has tormented Barney from the start - and from the boys - top of their fields in whatever sport, with well-moneyed parents who donate this and that to the school to keep their wee darlings out of trouble. There's a pivot point in the book where Barney is so unjustly treated, on top of being bruised and battered, when he's offered an out - a clean slate - and a chance to go on to the high school his father longs for him to attend. It's dirty pool, however; he knows he's being offered a bribe. Politics, old money, and viciousness are the watchwords of boarding school - and there's a clear division between people from Out West and Back East deal. Aside from being an archaeological mystery is also an interesting study of class in America in the early 80's.

Cover Chatter: Oh, 80's Covers, how loathsome you can be - but surprisingly, not this time. The Spanish language cover is fabbity-fab - a crazy-eighties pastiche of detail. Snowy is not quite blonde enough for his nickname, but still - there's those coke-bottle glasses, there's the blindfold, and aha, a cobra! The original Puffin cover isn't bad, either - two boys with flashlights and indeterminate brownish darkness. The more modern Kindle cover featuring a silhouette in a cave tall enough to stand in with light behind are a little misleading, as it's kind of a scramble to get INTO the cave, but the silhouette kind of gives a vague feeling of menace - you don't know who they are, or what you'll find down there. The most generic is the 2002 paperback cover - someone running in the woods. While at Winchester there were woods outside/around the hidden door, the cover doesn't really lend much to the story. Still, it works as blandly mysterious, and might make older readers pick this up.

You can find THROUGH THE HIDDEN DOOR by Rosemary Wells in any library, or at an independent bookstore near you!


Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

My favorite Rosemary Wells ever is THE FOG COMES IN ON LITTLE PIG FEET. Also about boarding school, but from the POV of a girl who rebels against it. It's funny and has a great ethical dilemma and is just a must-read, IMHO. :-)

tanita davis said...

@ Jennifer: I feel the slightest bit of a dolt in missing her YA/MG stuff from back in the day. I'm going to FIND that book; I went to boarding school and HATED, hated, hated it, so the little pig's feet sound like my cuppa.

aquafortis said...

If it helps, I don't think I read any of her MG/YA stuff back in the day, either--at least, not so's I remember. I'll definitely have to look for them...