The Mysterious Benedict Society
Trenton Lee Stewart
Illustrations by Carson Ellis
Little, Brown and Company, 2007
review by Tessa
Reynie Muldoon, ultra-observant orphan
Kate Weatherall, extremely resourceful orphan
Sticky Washington, mind like a steel trap, nerves like wilted lettuce, runaway from his parents.
Constance Contraire, tiny body, huge reserve of grumpy attitude.
Mr. Benedict, a good man, also a genius with emotionally-triggered narcolepsy
Rhonda Kazembe, passed all of Benedict’s tests and now works as his assistant
Number Two, insomniac, always noshing, fond of yellow, very loyal
Milligan, the eternally sad super spy
Miss Perumal, Reynie’s tutor and only friend
Ledroptha Curtain, evil genius mastermind inventor. director of a boarding school on an island.
Every time you turn on the TV or listen to the radio in your car, you’re not just hearing the normal soundtrack. There’s someone whispering behind all the other words. It’s a child’s voice, saying what seem like nonsense phrases. The whispering is ratcheting up world fear and causing all kinds of global problems. Mr. Benedict knows who is doing it. But he can’t stop it. He has to find the children who can. And he knows the best way to do it: take out an ad in the newspaper.
It’s the world you know, but more sinister. Think They Live! but through the lens of Lemony Snicket. The Mysterious Benedict Society opens with a premise that was nearly irresistible to me–the completion of tests with tests embedded within them. An orphaned boy (Reynie) spots an ad in the newspaper, which he makes a habit of reading every day, targeted towards “gifted children looking for special opportunities”. Reynie notices it not only because he is a gifted child, but because it’s addressed to the children themselves, not their parents. That’s just the kind of kid Reynie is. He notices the little things.
Hidden messages… photo by flickr user lkrichter
This advertisement attracts four children in particular who make it through the tests in varying ways, using their particular skills. I’m not going to describe the tests, because the fun part is figuring them out. The kids are led on to more tests, and so on and so forth until they land at the house of one Mr. Benedict, and learn that they are all, more or less, alone in the world and all, more or less, equipped to help in his quest. A quest that involves a school for special children, a reclusive genius who uses his mechanized chair as a bullying tool, and a machine called “The Whisperer”.
Of course, the school is much like another test for the children, but with much higher stakes. Will they prove to be resistant to the lure and comfort of The Whisperer, and the stress of their mission? They have almost nothing to go on, but they know their actions will determine the course of world history, and the quality of life for most people on the planet. Because the Whisperer is behind the problems that have been growing worse year after year. Problems they are familiar with, having read about them in the newspaper every day. The kinds of problems that don’t seem connected, more like a string of bad luck that goes on so long that it only merits a shake of the head when another example of it pops up.
“Things had gotten desperately out of control, the headlines reported; the school systems, the budget, the pollution, the crime, the weather … why, everything, in fact, was a complete mess, and citizens everywhere were clamoring for a major–no, a dramatic--improvement in government. ‘Things must change NOW!’ was the slogan plastered on billboards all over the city (it was a very old slogan), and although Reynie rarely watched television, he knew the Emergency was the main subject of the news programs every day, as it had been for years.”
Weirdly, even with all this going on, Reynie, Kate, Sticky, and Constance finally feel at home, because they’ve found each other, and they’ve found a purpose for their odd talents. (Well, no one is sure about Constance yet, because her talent seems to be stubbornness and grumpiness).
You’re probably sick of me talking about balance aaaaalllll the time, but it’s important, dammit, and I’m a Libra. I know that part of what made me want to always be furiously reading The Mysterious Benedict Society was that I was burned out on reading what I’d been reading – many superhero comics. I needed prose, and I needed a little adventure that required more detective work and less action fighting sequences (I know, Batman is technically a detective, but he does a lot of fighting, too). The MBS provided all these things in a cute brick of a book that hooked me with its tests and did not let go.
But part of why I enjoyed it was that it had balance. There are cheesy jokes, like Kate wanting to have a ridiculous nickname that never catches on–in fact, the character quirks of all the characters are the cheesiest thing about this book, and I didn’t escape without many an inward groan. The names of the adults and some of the children usually have a meaning that points towards important facets of their personality–one of the traits the book shares with early novels, a similarity that I was happy about, even though it seems cheesy– Mr. Benedict is benevolent, Number Two looks like a No. 2 pencil, Constance Contraire is quite contrary, Kate Weatherall is tough and can weather it all, S.Q. Pedalian has big feet (ped = foot in Latin)… etc., etc.
Then there’s the requisite danger, which does get chilling, especially during its first reveal, because of its subliminal nature.
“The unseen child–it sounded like a girl about Kate’s age–spoke in a plodding, whispery monotone, her voice half-drowned in static. At first only a few random words were clear enough to be understood: ‘Market … too free to be … obfuscate …’ Number Two typed more commands into the computer; the interference lessened considerably, and the child’s word came clearly now, slipping through the fain static in a slow drone:
‘The missing aren’t missing, they’re only departed,
All minds keep all thoughts–so like gold–closely guarded …’
Again the words were overcome by static. Number Two muttered under her breath. Her fingers flew across the keyboard, and the child’s slow, whispery voice returned:
‘Grow the lawn and mow the lawn.
Always leave the TV on.
Brush your teeth and kill the germs.
Poison apples, poison worms.’”
The Mysterious Benedict Society is in the tradition of Gulliver. Here he talks to the Houyhnhnms (by Grandville. via Wikimedia)
There are riddles for the kids to work out that the reader, if they are above a certain age, will probably get before the kids do (this is firmly a middle grade novel, and I love it for that). And most importantly, there is real feeling. It’s the same thing that makes Lemony Snicket work so well–the life lessons mixed in with the silliness are written about as they would occur in a human brain. And it’s in the same format as early novels like Henry Fielding’s The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews or Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels–the hero(es) have adventures and travel, and each new encounter says something about society and/or teaches a lesson–but it never fails to be imaginative or exciting. When Reynie worries about whether he’s a good person or not, it rings true. There’s a moment where the kids are exhausted and irritable and homesick, and it’s really poignant, because these are all kids that have felt alone for a long time, and they’re being made to grow up. So although the themes are stated plainly, they don’t sound like a panel of child psychologist inserted them into the narrative to promote maximum emotional development in the reader.
“Reynie’s mind went back to his last night at Mr. Benedict’s house. It seemed so long ago now, yet he remembered it with absolute clarity. Much like tonight, he had felt too worked up to sleep, and despite the late hour he had slipped quietly out of bed and crept down to Mr. Benedict’s study. Mr. Benedict had welcomed Reynie to sit up with him if he had trouble sleeping; and obviously he’d quite expected Reynie to do so, for when Reynie arrived, a cup of hot tea was waiting for him on Mr. Benedict’s desk. …
‘I was wondering if you ever wish you had a family,’ Reynie sputtered. He hadn’t meant to speak so directly, but once he’d begun to ask it, the words just tumbled out.
Mr. Benedict nodded. ‘Certainly when I was your age I did. But not anymore.’
Reynie wasn’t sure whether to be comforted or depressed by this revelation. He’d been wondering how it would feel for him to grow up without relatives. ‘You … you grew out of it, then? You stopped wanting it?’
‘Oh no, Reynie, you don’t grow out of it. It’s just that once you acquire a family, you no longer need to wish for one.’
Reynie was caught off guard. ‘You have a family?’
‘Absolutely,’ Mr. Benedict replied. ‘You must remember, family is often born of blood, but it doesn’t depend on blood. Nor is it exclusive of friendship. Family members can be your best friends, you know. And best friends, whether or not they are related to you, can be your family.’
Reynie had drunk up those words like life-saving medicine. Even though the next morning he would leave on a dangerous mission, even though he knew something terrible was coming down the pike, those words of Mr. Benedict’s had made all good things seem possible.”
A Series of Unfortunate Events / Lemony Snicket
3 orphans grow up under the most dire conditions, learn vocabulary along the way. In one of the books there’s a hotel where each floor corresponds with a section of the Dewey Decimal System.
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase / Joan Aiken
Her website calls this series “invented historical” adventures – I’ve only read one, which I bought because Edward Gorey did the illustrations–much like Carson Ellis did the illustrations for The Mysterious Benedict Society.
Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place / Maryrose Wood
Like if Jane Eyre were obsessed with a series of children’s books featuring a horse and had to tame three feral children.
Will I read the next book in the series?
I already have, and though I’m sad to say Carson Ellis was not the illustrator, I am happy to report that the Society gets to go to an entirely different island, meet a brave Dutch archivist, and learn about botany.