Book Blog: I Am Half-Sick of Shadows
You may recognize the title of Alan Bradley’s novel from the poem The Lady of Shalott by Alfred Tennyson. It is part of a popular, adult mystery series that I like to read, mainly because Bradley’s protagonist is an eleven-year-old girl who is passionate about chemistry and solving crimes.
The series takes place in an English village in the 1950’s. While it’s not unusual for an adult novel to feature children or teenagers, it is rare for those characters to speak or act authentically for their age. Bradley did not create a character who is seen through the lens of a childhood that has long passed. (He has also written for children.) His Flavia DeLuce, is the real deal. She is genuinely bewildered about the actions of the adults in her life, but able to deduct things with the clarity of a child’s heart and mind. When she is not solving a complex mystery or praising the chemical make-up of poisons, she is eavesdropping on adult conversations or formulating a way to create a glue that will cause Father Christmas to get stuck in the chimney so she can prove his existence to her older sisters. In a phrase - she is wicked awesome.
But what I love most about this book, and the reason why I am discussing it here on a blog for children’s literature, is that Bradley is masterful at opening the story with a scene that says so much about Flavia and her life. It is a lesson in “show, don’t tell” that allowed me to fall in love with her and understand a great deal about her character.
We meet Flavia in the abandoned east wing of her family’s dilapidated manor, Buckshaw. She has flooded the floors of the great hall, by running a garden hose through an open window, and, because this part of the house is not heated in winter, the water freezes to create her own personal skating rink.
“…no one would notice my improvised skating rink – not, at least, until springtime, when it melted. No one perhaps, but my oil-painted ancestors, row upon row of them, who were at this moment glaring sourly down at me from their heavy frames in icy disapproval of what I had done.”
Flavia imagines that a famous photographer will come and take photos of her flying on her skates about the room. He will publish them in the newspaper and her father, not knowing what she has done, will be so impressed when he reads about it, that he will call out to inform her sisters.
“Ophelia! Daphne! He would call, flapping the page in the air like a paper flag, then glancing at it again, just to be sure. “Come quickly. It’s Flavia – your sister!”
This fantasy stems from the fact that her father pays attention only to his stamp collection, not her. Her mother, whom Flavia refers to as “Harriet,” is gone from the house with no explanation. Her sisters taunt her with stories about her infancy that she can’t possibly remember – such as the time they claim she let a beloved pet parrot escape and upset her mother. She cannot combat their cruelty, so she fantasizes that she will poison them with a creation from her chemistry set – not enough to kill them, but just make them temporarily ill. She's deeply disappointed that there will be no Christmas tree in the house this year - and wildly delighted about the fact that holly berries are poisonous. She interacts with her family without sentimentality, though we know her heart. As dark as things seem, Flavia’s humor and unique intelligence unfold as she solves a crime, making her someone to admire and care about. I love English mysteries. This series is especially fun because of the spirit and spunk of Flavia DeLuce. And, I learned a great deal from reading this book about how characters can show their feelings, their loves and fears through actions and conversations.