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I had heard of Lauren DeStefano through alumni of my sixth grade classes; they loved two of her series: The Chemical Garden Trilogy and The Internment Chronicles, but I didn’t think that these books would be appropriate for my sixth graders and so I never read them. Last week, I received an advance copy of DeStefano’s latest – her middle grade debut, A Curious Tale of the In-Between:
The ghostly cover drew me in, perhaps because living in a very old farmhouse for the summer has me wondering about ghosts around every corner on country-dark night. But I was more intrigued by her letter to the reader, in which she explains her intent in writing this book: “…the sort of book most readers want: something we can relate to. Something that tells us we are not alone in our thoughts and reactions. Something that helps us to understand. When we can’t make sense of our world, we turn to the world’s that have been written for us. Sometimes, it’s the best answer we’re given.” So, I read on, and didn’t stop until the last page. A fabulous read.
Pram Bellamy lives with her Aunts Dee and Nan, in the Halfway to Heaven Home for the Ageing (yes, it is misspelled, and deliberately so). She’s been told that her mother died in childbirth, and that her father had disappeared long before her birth, and never returned to collect her. Pram is an unusual child, she can see ghosts and speak to them, and would rather their company than that of children her age. Her dearest friend, Felix, is of course a ghost – the one who inhabits the pond and trees on the property; and Pram is quite content to read her books, spend time with Felix and try to help her aunts manage the Home and its inhabitants. But the local school has different ideas about how Pram should be spending her weekdays, and though she dreads it, Pram must go. There, she meets Clarence, who also likes to sit in the hast row or the table by the exit in the cafeteria. Why, wonders Pram, would someone like Clarence want to hide?
But, as bright and vivid Clarence has lost his mother; he misses her dreadfully and feels her spirit near. As their friendship grows, Clarence comes to understand Pram’s gift, and Pram herself comes to believe that she must look for her lost father. The two friends, each searching for consolation and comfort, are soon ensnared and kidnapped by the mysterious Lady Savant – an in-between, just like Pram. The journey back to the land of the living is filled with twists and turns, uncertain to the very end.
I love the way DeStefano writes, it makes this unusual tale of magic and loss and redeeming friendship a beautiful one to read. Here, for instance, is a passage in which Pram learns more about Clarence’s mother:
“What’s it like to be able to remember someone you lost?” Pram asked him. She had lost both of her parents before she was born.
“It’s like my mother has become an actress in a play,” Clarence said. “And the play isn’t told in order, and sometimes the lines have changed. Sometimes I’m sitting too far away to see her face or hear her voice.”
“What’s the play about?” Pram asked.
“It’s all just moments she’s lived before,” Clarence said. “Good ones, mostly. Like how she had a silk scarf wrapped around her neck, and when she drove with the top down in the car, it flew behind her, and the way it fluttered it looked like the entire world was underwater.”
“That sounds wonderful,” Pram said. It was a proper memory, unlike the black-and-white photo of her own mother that hung over the stairs.
“It is, sometimes,” Clarence said. But then, just when it starts to feel real, it disappears.”
That is such a lovely and moving way to describe loss; and A Curious Tale of the In-Between is a lovely and moving book. DeStefano has created a mysterious and compelling world in this story, one which pulls the reader in and enfolds you in its spell.