The middle grade novel The Court of the Stone Children, by Eleanor Cameron (1973, 191 pages) has loads of vintage charm. I loved it from its opening paragraph:
They were standing in a group under the trees tossing up wishes for the future, wishes and predictions, grand and wild and inflated, boys and girls alike, but Nina, lost in her own musings, wasn’t taking it like that.
In these, what feel like to me, very uncertain times, it was comforting to curl up with a slightly yellowed, former library copy of a quaint novel I might have enjoyed as a child. As I read further in the book, it continued to be a pleasant escape, however I discovered several reasons why I think most people would not like it, so I can’t recommend it widely.
Summary from goodreads:
Who is Dominique? When Nina first sees her in the French Museum, she senses that there is something unreal about the strange, beautiful girl. In fact, Domi is from Napolean’s time, and she has come to get Nina’s help. For Domi’s father was executed as a traitor during the French Revolution, and Domi is convinced that Nina can prove his innocence. But to save Domi’s father, Nina will have to solve a mystery that has lasted two centuries. And she will have to travel back through time, back to France and the court of the stone children…
This book has a strong emotional component. Main character Nina and her family have recently relocated to San Francisco. The backstory of the novel is that Nina’s dad was treated for cancer a year ago. He beat the cancer but lost a lot of clients while he was sick, so he had to move his business and family to a larger city. Perhaps because of the recent changes in their lives, Nina’s relationship with both of her parents is a bit fraught. They are in an apartment that Nina hates.
He (Nina’s father) had said it so many times about finding another place that it was unbearable and she felt embarrassed for him because of the special way she felt about him. Her throat ached whenever they spoke of it. Her stomach tightened.
Unbearable. If Nina existed IRL people would probably say she was overly emotional, and perhaps that’s why I like her–I can relate. Once Nina meets time traveller/ghost girl Dominique, Domi’s emotional issues are added to the story, including the mystery about Domi’s father that is at the heart of the book. For most of the book, Nina is a bit freaked over the unpredictability of the ghost’s appearances. How convenient then, when she makes friends with the boy named Gil, who not only has eyes “of the most intense blue”, and is unfailingly kind and mature, but also happens to be an amateur philosopher who is compiling a book about the nature of time. (Your typical teenager.;)) The two of them ponder some quotations about time, such as “Time is the ghost of space”, which I think helps her come to terms with Domi’s time travelling. I wasn’t sure what to make of her special friendship with Gil. Is she crushed out on Gil or is she just beguiled by his exalted notions of time? In any case they have some dreamy conversations.
Nina and her landlady have more than one conversation about mirrors. The landlady remarks:
I’ve always had an odd feeling about mirrors… I must try it: not just glance in the mirror to see if my hair’s straight or I need lipstick, but to have the courage to really look, to steadily look, press my way in.
Say what? The conversations Nina has with Gil, and with her landlady seem rather “out there”, circa 1973. (The height of my childhood, as personified here by Tom Chapin.) It seems to me that the writing in middle grade books has become more straightforward in the four decades since this book was written–I don’t think this book could be written today. In addition to the multiple themes, and in-depth interior life of the characters, there is a lot of description of grounds and buildings. For example, the luster of the wood floor and banisters is described. The mystery Domi is trying to solve is pretty intriguing, but it doesn’t get as much space in the book as I would have liked. This is the kind of book you laugh at, rather than with, and for that reason I think most people wouldn’t like it. Here’s who I think would appreciate this book: women of my generation or older who are seeking a retro read, a few girls, and probably nobody else.
There are some dated comments about whether a girl can be a curator of a museum, worth mentioning to a kid interested in reading the book, but so blatantly sexist by today’s standards to be laughable.
Eleanor Cameron published twenty books in her lifetime. (You can read about her here; the controversy re Charlie and The Chocolate Factory makes for a fascinating aside ;))
Some other covers of the same book:
For more middle grade book reviews, follow the links at Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.
I hadn’t heard of this one. Despite the strangeness the story line intrigues me. How times have changed when you look at the ‘best of’ lists from this past year. Anyway, Thanks for the introduction to this story. I’ll look for it next time I’m through the library.
Gres, Yes, times have really changed. It’s eye-opening to read novels written decades ago from time to time.
This book is one of the first of its kind if written 44 years ago — the year I graduated from college. Ghosts time traveling to solve a mystery and seek help, is intriguing. This is a silly comment, but the cover made me uneasy. I thought of Narnia and the witch turning people and animals into stone.
Patricia, It is an arresting image on the cover.
This sounds pretty interesting. I’ve read some books that were published in this time period, and I’ve enjoyed them. Thanks for the review!
Violet, The main character was very earnest and not cynical. I don’t know if that is typical for the time period in which it was written, but it would seem a bit unnusual these days.
This sounds like a soothing and rather beautiful (if slightly spooky/dark? idk) book. Definitely one to look out for, especially in such scary times. *hugs* Thanks for the review! 🙂