When Victoria Wright was twelve years old, she had precisely one friend. In fact, he was the only friend she had ever had. his name was Lawrence Prewitt, and on Tuesday, October 11, of the year Victoria and Lawrence were twelve years old, Lawrence disappeared.
Victoria and Lawrence became friends shortly after Lawrence’s first gray hairs appeared. They were both nine years old and in fourth grade. Thick and shining, Lawrence’s gray hairs sprouted out from between his black, normal hairs and make him look like a skunk. Everyone made fun of Lawrence for this, and really, Victoria couldn’t blame them. Victoria decided that these hairs were a cosmic punishment for Lawrence’s inability to tuck in his shirt properly, use a comb, pay attention in class (he preferred to doodle instead of take notes), and do anything but play his wretched piano. Not that Lawrence was bad at piano; in fact, he was very good. but Victoria had always thought it an incredible waste of time. (Pages 1 & 2, The Cavendish Home for Girls and Boys by Claire Legrand)
I’m not kidding this one was seriously creepy. it was fantastic, but my skin is still crawling…
And you know why?
Think about the original Hansel and Gretel by the Brothers Grimm: Two children are abandoned by their parents and encounter a cannibalistic witch who holds them captive until Gretel outwits her. Well, this is also the premise for The Cavendish Home for Girls and Boys and it works delightfully well, although it is also delightfully frightening. Here’s the low-down:
Victoria is an extreme type-A personality (yes, I know, but this isn’t redundant). Victoria likes things just so and strives always for victory and perfection in every area including her friendship with Louis, who is more of a project to her than a friend. Life goes on as normal, Victoria being perfect and working at perfecting Louis, when Victoria receives a B in her music class. This is unacceptable. Around this time Victoria, who is feeling less than perfect, also beings to notice that something, something feels off and strange. Victoria hates it when her gut feeling doesn’t match up with what she wants to be feeling. Strange encounters with professors, parents, a neighbourhood dog and the sighting of creepy crawly insects begins to add up to underscore this strange something feeling that Victoria is having. Then Louis disappears and Victoria realizes that he isn’t the first child to go missing in Belleville, but he is the first one that Victoria especially misses and she wants to get him back, she wants things to go back to normal, she wants things to go back to being perfect… The problem is that Mrs. Cavendish also wants things to be perfect and Victoria is decidedly working against her.
There were loads of wonderful things about this book, here are a few that really stood out:
- Victoria’s perspective offered loads of little laughs and really infused life into this retelling. Victoria is logical and eerily similar to Mrs. Cavendish, but she also comes to realise that she is empathetic, something she’d never considered before, and this is a wonderful growth arc throughout the story.
- The slow and steady pacing was spot on. It really worked with the mystery that unravelled as we read along. I loved seeing Victoria’s world go from “normal” to incredibly abnormal throughout the chapters. It was a very subtle retelling and it was perfect.
- The friendship between Louis and Victoria was so charming and was probably the real hook that dragged me through the story as after just two encounters with Louis I could tell that he was someone special and that these two kids really cared for one another.
- It was actually creepy. A perfect Fall read.
What was especially enjoyable about The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls was the way the story was a completely fresh retelling of such a classic fairy tale, and one of my favourites. To tell you the truth, I’m not even sure that Legrand was inspired by Hansel and Gretel but I certainly saw the connection. Like the fairy tale, Legrand’s story plays on one of the most basic fears of children – being abandoned and forgotten by their parents and general betrayal by adults. This is such a common thread in literature for young people and it’s run deep in literature for this audience since before fairy tales and fables. Children learn resilience and they see the glimmer of independence in these stories, and, I think, these stories also serve as a way of cautioning children and youth about trusting everything that adults do and say – I mean, to err is human and children learn this through stories. The betrayal of adults in Cavendish was slow and steady. As Victoria’s world gradually became not-so-normal so too did she realize that the adults in her world were not only untrustworthy but often cowardly – and to be honest, she expected a lot more from them. Once Victoria is hot on the trail of the Cavendish Home as the culprit, her own parents forget her and abandon her to the outdoors and to the Home where she is meant to learn how to be perfect and fit into Belleville as she used to. We are meant to believe that Mrs. Cavendish somehow bewitches the people of Belleville, and most probably through food, but this doesn’t soften the blow of being forgotten. Indeed, Mrs. Cavendish’s way of “teaching” (torturing) poor Victoria is to make her watch as her parents come looking for her and then decide instead to replace her.
This was another place where the book succeeded in being frightening, not over the top, but fueling those instinctual fears: Mrs. Cavendish’s lessons. In order to make Louis stop playing piano he must sit at a piano without strings and play while little bugs come out and scratch at him, another girl must paint the same boring picture over and over again or be struck on the hand, a little boy has to eat cake until he sick. Cruel and torturous, but the real fear here is that once taught these children won’t be unique anymore – and that is more frightening than any bug bite. If fitting perfectly into society means one must be boring and un-individual, then our heroine and the other children fight determinedly against it. An overall lesson which I felt trumped Mrs. Cavendish’s brutal teachings.
Finally, another reason that I enjoyed the book was the cannibalism (I know, yuck, right?) because it is such a prominent theme in Fairy Tales (think Snow White where the evil stepmother wants to eat Snow White’s heart? Or the Juniper Tree where the mother cooks her stepson for his father etc. . . it is a very common thread that is so interesting to read in retellings). Whereas the original Fairy Tale was able to address this carnal fear directly, Cavendish only hints and dances around the topic. Still, it remains and it is creepy and gross, as it should be, but it also works with the magic of the story. Eating, chewing, taste and ingestion are a theme in the diction throughout the book and as we come to realize that perhaps the food is other children, perhaps the food is actually little bugs, perhaps the food is somehow enchanting… our skin begins to crawl with realization. Accompanied by the beautiful and eerie illustrations of spindly characters and looming shadows by Sarah Watts enhanced Victoria’s something feeling and also hinted at the darker cannibalistic plot that lay beneath Home. However, the cannibalism is only implied and only actually mentioned once when Victoria speculates that the candies looked an awful lot like eyes… The wordplay creates this strange and awful cannibalistic magic and it’s wonderful that Legrand can pull it off . It’s gross but it never feels unnecessary, instead it blends into the story so that it simply becomes a part of the awful world of the Cavendish Home.
In conclusion I have decided that I want to explore cannibalism in children’s literature a little bit more, but in the mean time I recommend this delicious read for your Halloween season.