In The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart, a number of children answer an ad for “gifted children looking for special opportunities” and take a series of tests. Four children ultimately pass all the tests and are asked to help a Mr. Benedict, who designed the tests, on a special mission. The four children also happen to be orphans except for one who ran away from home. The children are:
Reynard (Reynie) Muldoon, who has a special knack for logic, solving puzzles, figuring out “trick” questions, thinking “outside the box.”
George (“Sticky”) Washington, who remembers everything he reads and is generally very nervous.
Kate Wetherall, the most physical of the group (having spent most of her life with the circus), an one-woman (or girl) MacGyver with an ever-present bucket of useful items, including a spyglass disguised as a kaleidoscope.
Constance Contraire, who is very…contrary, small, sleeps a lot, and argues even more. The reason for her contrariness isn’t revealed until the last chapter, and it’s hilarious. It makes her behavior all through the book make sense.
The children are asked to go on a dangerous but important mission to thwart an evil Ledroptha Curtain, a mission that only children could successfully accomplish (all manner of government officials have not seen the danger despite Mr. Benedict’s numerous attempts to inform them), and in the process learn about themselves, about how to work as a team, about how to face fears and extend themselves. I can’t tell you much more than that without giving too much away, and this book is best unfolded at its own pace (for that reason, I’d advise not reading the Wikipedia entry on it til you’re done — it has way too many spoilers).
I have to admit it took me a while to get into the book. I had heard it lauded so much I think I was expecting to be wowed within moments, but it took a while for it to grow on me. It’s not until 80 or so pages in that I began to get some inkling what was going on, and I thought the remaining 400+ pages were going to go by slowly. But the kids are in the same boat as the reader, so it takes a while first for the clues to fall into place and then to figure out what to do about them, and it does reach “hard to put down” status after a while. I have to admit I almost rolled my eyes a little at the “world domination through thought control” idea (which made me think of Pinky and the Brain), but that’s the stuff of many a children’s book and superhero story.
But these children are not superheroes. I love that they are very real. They are gifted in different ways, but they each have their own struggles, strengths, weaknesses, doubts. They have to learn to lean on each other, to seek guidance yet to think for themselves. I love when books bring a character beyond what they think they can do, like Frodo and Sam in Lord of the Rings or Abbie in Keep the Lights Burning, Abbie (one of my favorite children’s books).
Though the book is not written from a Christian viewpoint, there are several underlying truths in it (someone once said “All truth is God’s truth”). Carrie saw some parallels to spiritual warfare and to differently-gifted people working together as a cohesive whole in the church, and I can see that. There is also an underlying love of truth throughout the book and a resistance to evil. It disturbed me when the children had to both cheat and lie at a couple of points, but it was justified as something which one would do in warfare that one wouldn’t normally do, and I can see that as well.
The word “clever” kept coming to mind as I read this, both in the wordplay and in the writing. I had wondered, with the idea of thought control coming through television and radios, whether the book was some kind of allegory concerning technology or wasting brains with media, but Carrie’s research indicated the author wrote in “all in good fun” with the main message being “Kids are people, too.”
I think my children would have liked this book when they were younger. I think my oldest in particular would have liked it during his Encyclopedia Brown days. I think they’d like it now, actually. Like Narnia, Anne of Green Gables, and the Little House books, it has great appeal to adults as well.
So…real, clever, interesting, fun, dramatic at points, all upon a bedrock of truth…I’d say those are components of a great book.
(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)