The Museum of Mary Child by Cassandra Golds. Kane/Miller. 2009. Review copy from publisher. Ages: middle grade and up.
The Plot: Once upon a time. There was a girl. There was a doll. There was a city. There was a prisoner. There was a museum. There was a madhouse. And there were birds.
Heloise is raised by her godmother and a housekeeper. Her memories of how she arrived at the Cottage are sketchy. The rules of her godmother are odd. Both love and imagination are forbidden. All Heloise wants is what she cannot have -- a doll. When she finds one hidden in the floorboards of her room, the doll whispers "you may call me Maria."
The dark secrets that haunt and govern the lives of Heloise and her godmother are about to be revealed.
The Good: This was one crazy book; both terrifying and reassuring, full of hate and love and the impossible.
The reader has to believe -- believe in the Secret Society of Caged Birds who assist and comfort prisoners. Believe in a Museum full of dolls....all the same doll, over and over, half hidden in walls and floors and chairs and gardens, all with their faces hidden behind a mask of stitches. Believe that a girl can run away and birds can guide her to a safe haven where for once she finds love, acceptance, music and colorful clothes. Believe in magic.
What happens in The Museum of Mary Child is unexpected and full of twists, of nightmares and dreams come to life. It is horror and miracle. It's not the twists of a "gotcha" mystery; rather, it is a stunningly original story that dares to ask what is a miracle? What is faith? What is love? What is life?
Who is the reader for this book? It's fairy tale-ish, yet also scary. On one level, it will work for younger readers looking for a spooky tale. Dolls that talk? Birds that guide people to safety? A museum that haunts ones dreams? This delivers on the horror front.
The Museum of Mary Child also has a distinct literary style, with metaphors and allegories that will appeal to those readers who want something more from a book; who want the caviar, not just the chocolate. It's Margo Lanagan for tweens. Actually, because of the uneasy questions asked and not answered, teens will appreciate this book, also. It may be a harder sell -- Heloise, the main character, is a child for most of the book -- but if they trust you to read the first twenty or so pages, they'll be hooked.
Edited to add to my Favorite Books Read in 2010 (see sidebar). Because I cannot get the questions it raises out of my head. And, well, the dolls.
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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy