Oct 05

Book Review: The Figure in the Shadows

The Figure In the Shadows (Lewis Barnavelt)The Figure In the Shadows by John Bellairs

I read this book as a child. In fact, it was one of my favorite books. It was one of the few books which made the short list of books I read over and over again. I remember that it was the second in a series, and once I found the first in the series (The Clock in the Walls) and read it, but the first book didn’t stick in my memory as much as this one did.

I ordered a copy of it online, once I remembered the title, and recently re-read it to see if it was still as good as I remembered, and moreover, to figure out what it was about it that I liked.
The main character is a chubby, nerdy 11-year-old orphan named Lewis, who lives with his uncle Jonathan, who happens to be a wizard. The fact that Jonathan is a wizard is kind of a throwaway fact about him at first, which was my only clue as a child that this was the second in a series. Jonathan’s next-door neighbor, Mrs. Zimmerman, is a witch who is even better at magic than Jonathan is, and she often comes over to cook for Jonathan and Lewis.

The house that Jonathan and Lewis live in is a sprawling mansion-like house in a small town set someplace exotic (as a child, exotic meant anywhere that got snow) like New England. I loved that they had farms and abandoned wells and mansions and Masonic temples–all things nonexistent in the Southwestern suburb I grew up in. The time had its own exoticisms for me. Lewis was allowed to come home for his lunch hour (we got something like 17 minutes to eat) and he was always worried about the bully beating him up. I never saw bullies at school, at least, not physical bullying. (Girls generally bullied with psychological torture, which is harder to prosecute.) The idea that you could combat your tormenters by hitting them was a refreshing novelty.

Most of all, I liked Lewis’s best friend Rose Rita. Rose Rita was like an idealized version of me. She’s fierce and brave, and asserts her independence. She’s also, like Lewis, a little nerdy. The two of them spend time making a Roman War Galley (complete with Latin motto) and neither of them find this unusual. When I was 11, I knew that if Rose Rita and Lewis had been real people, I would have been their friends.

Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman are good characters too. They’re not exactly parents to Lewis, being an uncle and his neighbor, they they provide parental support without being overbearing. Lewis takes comfort in their presence, but since he’s an orphan, he also isn’t sure how far this tolerance and love will extend. When he gets into trouble, he doesn’t automatically turn to them to solve it.

The plot revolves around a lucky three cent piece that Lewis gets from his grandfather’s trunk of old things. He hopes it is a magic amulet, but his uncle and Mrs. Zimmerman test it and say it’s not. Still, Lewis isn’t so sure. As soon as he gets it, it starts to change him. It makes him feel brave and aggressive, for one, and strange things begin to happen.

The first thing is when a card mysteriously appears in the mail slot. The card is blank on one side, but when he flips it over and back again, a word appears, Venio which Lewis knows is Latin for “I come.” To me, that was awesome, both that a word appeared, and that it was in a foreign language, and that it was in a foreign language that an 11 year old boy might actually know. (This could be the scene that made me choose to study Latin in High School.) Lewis’ personality, and the strange sightings of the figure in the shadows intensify, until he gets so scared he tells Rose Rita about it.

Rose Rita offers to take the coin, and Lewis agrees, but then he changes his mind and she has to fight him for it. He’s at first grateful, but as time goes on, he feels the urge to get the coin back, and concocts a scheme to steal it from Rose Rita.

There were a couple of things which struck me, reading this as an adult, that I didn’t notice as a child. While the point of view hops a few times, I didn’t notice or care when I read this as a child. Now it’s been pounded into my head that POV switches without scene changes are a no-no, but I’m starting to think that this is a current fashion, rather than an inviolate rule. Also, at a certain point Lewis needs to be rescued, and it’s up to Rose Rita, Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman to rescue him. Mrs. Zimmerman does most of it, providing the means and the knowledge of where and when they need to go. If I were looking at this critically, with a fresh eye, I might suggest that we have a little more foreshadowing of who and what the figure was. Having Mrs. Zimmerman provide a parlour-room “this is what happened” scene struck me as another one of those writing conventions that people don’t use so much anymore. It’s also a wee bit Deus Ex Machina, that Mrs. Zimmerman both knows where to go, what to do, and has the tools (to give Rose Rita) to solve the problem.

Still, as a child, none of these bothered me. I didn’t need to know where Mrs. Z got the magic nasal spray, only that Rose Rita had to wield it. I guess I loved that the girl rescues the guy, and that the old woman is smarter and more powerful than the old man (and that both of them are pretty much okay with that.) I loved the gothic spookiness of it, and the matter-of-fact way that magic is presented. I also loved that the adults treat the children like people, people with their own problems and strengths and personalities and motives.

And last, but not least, the fact that it was illustrated by Mercer Meyer didn’t hurt anything.

I’m glad that this book didn’t suffer from the Gilligan’s Island syndrome, where something beloved as a child sucks now that you view it with adult eyes. I’m also glad that I’m able to figure out what I liked about it so that I can hopefully replicate some of these elements in my own work.

I recommend this book for 4th to 6th grade children who want something a little spooky, and will be intrigued by (rather than put off by) the fact that it’s set in the 20th century.

View all my reviews

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