Title: The Aviary
Author: Kathleen O’Dell
Genre: Historical Fiction (some Gothic/Fantasy elements)
Age Category: 8+
Historical Fiction: The Aviary
Clara Dooley leads a quiet, lonely life. A serious heart condition has kept her indoors for years, far away from other children who might excite her. Instead, she spends her days in the Glendoveer Mansion, where her mother works as a housekeeper for the frail (and ailing) Mrs. Glendoveer, an elderly widow who is still reeling from the sudden deaths of her five children decades before . . . and from the kidnapping of the sixth and youngest child, Elliot. Now all Mrs. Glendoveer has is a crumbling mansion filled with memories, and an aviary inhabited by a rather motley assortment of extremely long-lived birds. The birds scare Clara with their persistent screeching, and never more so than the fateful day when the mynah calls out to her and speaks one word: ‘Elliot.’ With that, Clara and her newfound (and secret) friend Daphne are off and running (so to speak) after the mystery of the Glendoveer children—the resolution of which may endanger Clara herself.
Subjective Appeal: Gothic Period Setting, Tried and True Tropes
Any story centered around an aviary should absolutely preserve the stately-yet-unsettling sensation that characterizes the best Gothic literature, and this book is no exception. The year is 1905, and the Dooleys (and Glendoveers) live in a gloriously decrepit mansion near Lockhaven Bay on the coast of Maine. There are rose gardens, and an aviary (obviously), and a cellar, and an attic, and a secret passageway (of sorts), and an opinionated cook, and a historical society, and a serious heart condition, and a family secret, and rumors, and a diary . . . the whole thing is chock full of Gothic mystery and period goodness. Even the pace of the book itself hearkens back to the calmer, slower stories of days gone by. Not that the story drags—not by a long shot. It sucks you in from the get-go and constantly pulls you forward, but at a more sedate pace that allows you to relish the journey in a way that modern heart-pounding, high-octane reads simply do not permit.
The publishers compare this book to Burnett’s The Secret Garden, and they are right to do so—the feel here is very similar. The Aviary lacks the wild backdrop of the Yorkshire moors, but the Glendoveer Manor is very nearly vast enough (and mysterious enough) to make up the difference. Then, too, Clara Dooley, a fairly sweet child to begin with, does not have to undergo the character transformation for which Burnett’s Mary Lennox is so well known. The girls’ forbidden yet steadfast friendship despite differing temperaments is reminiscent of Anne Shirley and Diana Barry in Montgomery’s beloved classic Anne of Green Gables—though Clara is the calm and staid Diana to Daphne’s wilder and more impetuous Anne. Throw in a pinch of the supernatural (Mrs. Glendoveer’s husband was a famous magician, don’t you know) and a healthy slug of long-forgotten—but never solved—mystery, and you’ve got the recipe for a pretty delicious little book. Things go a bit off the rails at the very end of the book, as the supernatural elements threaten to overwhelm the story, but by and large O’Dell has created nothing less than a modern classic.
Developmental Value: Independence, Submission, and Honesty
Whenever a book features a child protagonist, issues of submission and independence tend to lurk nearby. The writer has to come up with a reason why the child is the one handling the problem instead of handing it over to a capable and trustworthy adult. Common solutions include disbelief (adults will not give any credence to the emergency perceived only by the child), secrecy (there is some reason why grown-ups cannot be told), impotence (the accessible adults cannot actually help), urgency (there simply isn’t time to involve a grown-up), or simple independence (the child doesn’t want help).
O’Dell relies on all five. The supernatural elements involved—and the ultimate identity of the villain—make it unlikely that Clara’s mother or the cook or anyone else will believe Clara’s version of events. Daphne’s involvement, and Clara’s secret friendship with her in defiance of her mother’s orders, make Clara loathe to reveal the results of the girls’ investigation and seek assistance. Then, too, even if Clara were to enlist her mother’s help, there is the issue of how much help a housekeeper can actually provide in the face of a powerful enemy. As a result of these choices, the girls pretty much paint themselves into a corner such that when they finally need assistance, there is no time to ask. And, of course, underneath all these circumstantial considerations, there is 12-year-old Clara’s bid for some measure of independence after years of restrictions and submission. These various factors place Clara, and not a competent adult, at the center of the action.
In the process of maneuvering Clara into this role of protagonist, O’Dell presents the reader with a character who makes some very questionable choices. Clara disobeys her mother several times. She keeps secrets and even tells lies. Often, she believes she has good reason for her actions. And it comes to light that some of her mother’s rules were misguided—or even downright dishonest; that Clara herself has been lied to. Although the book itself does not resolve this tension between obedience and independence, it could be an excellent catalyst for helpful conversations about coming of age, including discussions about when and how to disagree with—or even disregard—rules and commands, and the unwisdom and consequences of dishonesty and deceit. Which, let’s face it, is a pretty important lesson to learn.
If you enjoyed this review why not share it on Facebook or Twitter? The “Like” and “Share/Save” buttons below make it easy. If you have some feedback on the review, leave a comment; we’d love to hear from you! For more of Alexis’s reviews, check out her lit blog quantum meruit.