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The Hardscrabble children are (let’s face it) strange. Elder brother Otto never takes off the scarf he has worn since their mother disappeared, and speaks only in a private sign language understood only by his siblings. Youngest child Max is a walking encyclopedia with a head for heights. And in the middle is Lucia, the narrator (though she pretends to be anonymous), scared and vulnerable and mouthy and fiercely protective of her family. A lot of self-deprecating humor works its way into her narrative, as she admits to being afraid of heights, repeatedly mistakes the meanings of words Max knows and uses, and addresses back-chatty remarks to the English teacher who asked her to write this studiously dramatic account of her family’s most gothically creepy adventure.
Otto, Lucia, and Max live alone with their father, who is a portrait painter—except, when their father goes out of town to sketch studies of fallen royalty from around the world, such as the deposed prince who ate his breakfast while perched on top of a fountain, and the rejected wife of an African tribal chief who, when the lions growled at her, growled right back. During their father’s trips, the strange Hardscrabble children usually have to stay with a neighbor lady who treats them poorly. On this occasion, however, they ride a train to London to stay with an aunt—who, thanks to a communication snag, proves to be away from home. After a hair-raising evening on the city streets, the three children find their way to a miniature castle (a child-size replica of the full-size castle next door), where they happen to know their great-aunt is staying. A woman they have never met. A woman whom they suspect of being their mother.
While they are working up the nerve to ask Aunt Haddie whether she is really their mum, they get caught up in a spooky mystery involving a figure seen in the top-floor windows of Kneebone Castle, a secret passage, a mechanical dragon, a deformed child kept hidden away by his family, a possible ghost, and a lost prince found hunted and hiding in a forest far from home. Before the pieces of the puzzle come together, the Hardscrabbles will take terrible risks and make tear-jerking discoveries. And while all their problems are not magically solved, what they find will carry their family past a point of painful mystery that has choked their happiness for years.
As the author of the Olivia Kidney series, Ellen Potter has already proven herself adept at steering brave young characters through rough emotional seas. We feel for their hurting as they slowly wrap their minds around such awful realities as death and mental illness in the family. While I have reservations about the realism and respectfulness of this book’s treatment of the latter problem, I mostly enjoyed this book. I was particularly attracted to the way the Hardscrabble children get along together. Though at one point, Potter slips and makes a reference to Otto’s tone of voice, she perhaps repairs this blunder by mentioning later on that a sharpness in his hand gestures came across to his siblings as yelling. And that’s really where this book interests me: its sensitivity to the private ways loved ones have of reading each other, and by accepting each other’s imperfections, becoming greater than the sum of their individual selves. In plain English, I was touched by the interplay between those strange Hardscrabble children.
More books by Ellen Potter (besides three or four Olivia Kidney books) include Pish Posh, Slob, The Humming Room, and Otis Dooda: Strange But True.