The girls often play hide-and-seek in the woods, the soles of their feet thick as hide, the sound of their laughter filling the air, but they always come home at dusk. One night, their mother doesn't come home. Just like that, she is gone, having left by choice for parts unknown. Tennyson doesn't know where her mother is, but she knows why: "Because she's like Jos . . . She's wild and she doesn't really belong to us." Tennyson, also a writer, has been aware of her mother's discontent for years, so though her leaving hurts, it comes as no surprise.
So that he may search for his wife, Emery must leave his daughters with his sister Henrietta at a colorless Louisiana house called Aigredoux (pronounced Aag-reh-do). He tells them to pretend that they are actresses in a play, to mind what Aunt Henrietta says, and to be brave. He promises that he will be back soon with their mother. And then he, too, is gone.
Aunt Henrietta has little tolerance for her nieces' dirt-and-tear-streaked faces, appalled by their old clothes and lack of manners. She considers herself to be a lady and her crumbling, faded house a castle. Her husband Thomas, aka Uncle Twigs, is more concerned with his role as the president of the Louisiana Societ the Strict Enforcement of the Proper Use of the English Language than his supposed job as caretaker, and their housekeeper Zulma is as no-nonsense as Henrietta. The young sisters get by, for they have always been thick as thieves, with Tennyson looking after Hattie since they were little.
Tennyson begins to dream in detail. She sees her ancestors' tragic wedding take place on the same grounds she now lives, then later scribbles down the entire story on the back of old sheet music. If she could just get this published in her mother's favorite magazine, The Sophisticate, she knows her mother will read it and come back home. The only person who knows of her new plan is Zipporah, the gentleman at the local post office. As Tennyson continues to have these big dreams, readers will be drawn further and further in, turning pages until they reach the impactful conclusion. Afterwards, the book's appendix offers a family tree and history as well as song lyrics and poems noted in the story, including some by the protagonist's namesake, Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
In her third novel for young readers, Lesley M.M. Blume has woven ancestral tales together in one finely-spun Southern story. With the Gothic elements illuminated by history and known to be dreams, this is not a horror story and will not frighten young readers. Rather, like young Hattie (who finds Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass to be more interesting than history), the dreams will make them curious and keep them reading. Instead of being outright haunted by ghosts, Aigredoux would appear to be haunted by memories, by the loss and destruction seen by the previous generations. Their faces are captured in portraits on the walls, their lives in Tennyson's dreams, and Tennyson's story is just as important as theirs. This is how and why and when she transitions from an intelligent child into a young adult.
While reading this book, I pictured Ryan O'Neal in Paper Moon as Emery. I shared this tidbit with author Lesley M.M. Blume, who then looked him up online (ah, the power of Google Images!) and told me I was "spot-on." Maybe we can get Cary Elwes, if he's available...
Read my 2008 interview with the author.
Read my 2006 interview with the author.
Read my review of Lesley's first novel, Cornelia and the Audacious Escapades of the Somerset Sisters. (Review of her second novel, The Rising Star of Rusty Nail, to come.)