Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Book review: The Aviary

The Aviary is a gothic tale full of period detail that is set around the turn of the century in Lockhaven, Maine. Our heroine, Clara Dooely, is an almost-twelve-year old girl living like a ghost in the Glendoveer mansion. Some fifty years earlier, George Glendoveer was the greatest, most famous magician living and was credited for taking his art form from the streets to the theaters. Now, his aged widow Cenelia is nearing the end of her life, alone but for Ruby, her cook and Harriet, Clara's mother, as her housekeeper and caretaker who live very frugally in the once regal home. Because of her weak heart, Clara spends all her time locked up in the house with Mrs Glendoveer as her teacher. When a violent storm knocks down trees and rips the shutters off the front windows of the house Clara gets a glimpse at the wider world outside and the world, or at least Daphne Aspinal, gets a glimpse of her. Daphne is a bit of an Anne Shirley, adventurous, enthusiastic, eager to see justice done and injustices righted. When she sees Clara in the window, she slips a heartfelt letter under the front door of the Glendoveer mansion and a secret friendship begins. My favorite line in the book comes when, after encouraging a wary Clara to sneak out to the Lockhaven Historical Society to poke around for clues, Clara says she cannot disobey her mother in that way. To this, Daphne counters, "Clara? Shall we be honest? You have been disobeying your mother for some time now." It is always a good thing to have such a direct and forthcoming friend when there is a mystery to be solved.

Besides a decades old mystery, the Glendoveer mansion is also home to an enormous black iron aviary that is home, still, to the five birds that George Glendoveer used as part of his act. While Ruby tends to the birds as best she can, they "flutter and scream as if they were on fire, grasping at the bars with their sharp claws" whenever anyone besides Mrs Glendoveer approaches their cage. They seem to get especially frantic when, on rare occasions, Clara nears their home. When, after the storm, Mrs Glendoveer is anxious to know that her birds are safe, she begs Clara to check on them. Despite her fears, she makes her way to the aviary where the birds take up their usual cacophony, only this time Clara detects a word - a name - among the shrieks. Knowing that the mynah and the cockatoo once spoke, she rushes back into the house to tell Mrs Glendoveer that one of the birds definitely spoke the name "Elliott." Amazed, Mrs Glendoveer has Clara retrieve a locked scrapbook from which she pulls an old photograph of a woman "in an old-fashioned gown, seated in a cane chair and holding an infant with bright black eyes." Mrs Glendoveer tells Clara that they did not have Elliott for long. Clara tells her, "I always knew you must have had a child. I felt it . . . Maybe because you have always been so understanding of me." Clara doesn't realize it at the time, but this revelation is the first clue in a mystery that she has grown up around with out even knowing it.

The talking birds, the revelation that there once was a Glendoveer baby and the appearance of Daphne combine to stir curiosity and discontent in Clara's previously quiet, contented life. In Harriet, Clara's mother, O'Dell has created a believably strong-willed, protective, impoverished mother who, understandably, keeps her ailing daughter sheltered. Even when Harriet's true reasons for keeping Clara locked away are revealed they are remain believable and part of the whole cloth of the story. And, because of the tenacious love both Harriet and Ruby and even Mrs Glendoveer have for Clara she is an authentically happy child. In this, O'Dell brilliantly overcomes a major aspect of a mystery and/or fantasy novel - how to explain the unknowing state of the protagonist who eventually will become enlightened and how to make this enlightenment credible within the context of the story. Clara's home life provides a very feasible situation for her innocence and solitude and for her sleuthing as well as a setting that makes it possible for her, with the help of Daphne, to realistically uncover the mystery at the heart of the story. Usually, this problem is solved by making the protagonist an orphan and I applaud Ms O'Dell for finding a way around that scenario.
This book is ideal for 10+ year olds. It is captivating and thrilling enough to be a page turner. Check it out today. Read on.
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