Where does fantasy stop and science fiction begin? Is it possible to ever draw a distinct line in the sand between the two? A book with a name like The Water Castle (mistakenly read by my library’s security guard as “White Castle”) could fall on either side of the equation, though castles generally are the stuff of fantastical fare. In this particular case, however, what we have here is a smart little bit of middle grade chapter book science fiction, complete with arson, obsession, genetic mutation, and a house any kid would kill to live in. Smarter than your average bear, this is one book that rewards its curious readers. It’s a pleasure through and through.
Welcome to Crystal Springs, Maine where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average. That last part seems to be true, anyway. When Ephraim Appledore, his two siblings, his mom, and his father (suffering from the after effects of a stroke) move to town he’s shocked to find that not only does everyone seem to know more about his family history than he does, they’re all geniuses to boot. The Appledores have taken over the old Water Castle built by their ancestors and harboring untold secrets. When he’s not exploring it with his siblings Ephraim finds two unlikely friends in fellow outcast Mallory Green and would-be family feuder Will Wylie. Together they discover that the regional obsession with the fountain of youth may have some basis in reality. A reality that the three of them are having trouble facing, for individual reasons.
When one encounters an old dusty castle hiding trapdoors and secret passageways around every corner, that usually means your feet are planted firm in fantasy soil. All the elements are in place with Ephraim akin to Edmund in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and a dusty old wardrobe even making a cheeky cameo at one point. What surprised me particularly was the book’s grounding instead in science fiction. That said, how far away from fantasy is science fiction in children’s literature? In both cases the fantastical is toyed with. In this particular case, eternal life finds its basis in discussions of mutant genes, electricity, radiation, and any number of other science-based theories. Interestingly, it’s actually hard to come up with many children’s books that even dwell on the fountain of youth. There’s Tuck Everlasting of course, but that’s about as far as it goes. One gets the impression that Babbitt did such a good job with the idea that no one’s had the guts to take it any farther since. Kudos to Blakemore then for rising to the challenge.
I’m very partial to children’s books that are magical if you want them to be and realistic if that’s what you’d prefer. This year’s Doll Bones by Holly Black, for example, could be an uber-creepy horror story or it could just be a tale of letting your imagination run away with you. Similarly The Water Castle could be about the true ramifications of eternal life, or it could be explained with logic and reason every step of the way. I was also rather interested in how Ms. Blakemore tackled that age-old question of how to allow your child heroes the freedom to come and go as they please without a droplet of parental supervision. In this case her solution (father with a stroke and a mother as his sole caretaker) not only worked effectively but also tied in swimmingly into our hero’s personal motivations.
In the midst of a review like this I sometimes have a bad habit of failing to praise the writing of a book. That would be a particular pity in this case since Ms. Blakemore sucked me in fairly early on. When Ephraim and his family drive into town for the first time we get some beautiful descriptions of the small town itself. “They rolled past the Wylie Five and Dime, which was advertising a sale on gourds, Ouija boards, and pumpkin-pie filling.” She also has a fine ear for antiquated formal speech, though the physical appearances of various characters are not of particular importance to her (example: we don’t learn that Ephraim’s little sister Brynn is blond until page 183).
An interesting aspect of the writing is its tackling of race, racism, and historical figures done wrong by their times. I was happy from the get-go that Ms. Blakemore chose to make her cast a multi-cultural one. Mallory is African-American, one of the few in town, and is constantly being offered subjects like Matthew Henson for class reports because . . . y’know. Henson himself plays nicely into a little subplot in the book. Deftly Ms. Blakemore draws some similarities between his work with Robert Peary and Tesla’s attitude towards Edison. Nothing too direct. Just enough information where kids can connect the dots themselves. For all this, I was a bit disappointed that when we read some flashbacks into the past there doesn’t seem to be ANY racism in sight. We follow the day-to-day activities of an African-American girl and the various rich white people she encounters and yet only ONE mention is made of their different races in a vague reference to the fact that our heroine’s family has never been slaves. This seemed well-intentioned but hugely misleading. Strange to discuss Henson and Peary in one breath and then ignore everyday realities on the other.
If the book has any other problems there is the fact that the author leaves the essential question about the mysterious water everyone searches for in this story just that. Mysterious. There are also some pretty heady clues dropped about Mallory’s own parents that remain unanswered by the tale’s end. Personally, I am of the opinion that Ms. Blakemore did this on purpose for the more intelligent of her child readers. I can already envision children’s bookgroups discussing this title at length, getting into arguments about what exactly it means that Mallory’s mom had that key around her neck.
In the end, The Water Castle is less about the search for eternal life and youth than it is about letting go of childhood and stories. Age can come when you put those things away. As Ephraim ponders late in the game, “No one back in Cambridge would believe that he’d been crawling around in dark tunnels, or climbing up steps with no destination. Maybe, he decided, growing up meant letting go of the stories, letting go in general, letting yourself fall just to see if you could catch yourself. And he had.” Whether or not Ms. Blakemore chooses to continue this book with the further adventures of Ephraim, Mallory and Will, she’s come up with a heckuva smart little creation. Equally pleasing to science fiction and fantasy fans alike, there’s enough meat in this puppy for any smart child reader or bored kid bookgroup. I hope whole droves of them find it on their own. And I hope they enjoy it thoroughly. A book that deserves love.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Notes on the Cover: Is that or is that not a fantasy cover? The ivy strangled stone gargoyles and castle in the background all hint at it. I wasn’t overly in love with this jacket at first, but in time I’ve discovered that kids are actually quite drawn to it. Whether or not they find it misleading, time will tell. Not having read the bookflap description of this title, I spent an embarrassingly long amount of time trying to turn the kids on the cover into Ephraim and his siblings. It was quite a while before I realized my mistake.
Other Blog Reviews: Cracking the Cover
Interviews: Portland Press Herald
Misc: Check out the Teacher’s Guide for this book.