Author and Illustrator: Judith Rossell
Publication: Atheneum, hardcovers, 2016 and 2017
Genre: Middle grade historical fantasy
Plot: In Withering-by-Sea, we meet Stella Montgomery, an eleven-year-old orphan being brought up by three disagreeable aunts and their spiteful maid Ada in the Hotel Majestic, somewhere in Victorian England. Stella longs for adventure but the closest she has come is reading about the Amazon in the Atlas she cherishes. When a desperate visitor to the hotel gives her something to hide, Stella is plunged into danger, forcing her to flee from a magician who wants to harm her. In the process, Stella makes friends (courageous Gert, part of a dancing act, and Ben, the unwilling assistant to Professor Starke) and starts seeking the truth about her own background.
In sequel Wormwood Mire, the aunts have sent Stella away in disgrace to the old family estate, Wormwood Mire, to live with two unknown cousins and their governess. Despite the gloom of the mostly abandoned estate and meals consisting mostly of bread and jam, this seems an improvement in Stella’s situation. Strideforth and Hortense are friendly, and the eccentric governess is kind although preoccupied with her botany studies. Soon Stella begins to have flashbacks to her childhood, and remembers that she, her twin, and her mother once stayed at Wormwood Mire, but the villagers stare at her strangely and refuse to talk about it. The discovery of a secret room and the disappearance of a child are just some of the secrets that stand between Stella and her true identity.
My Impressions: Writing in the tradition of Eva Ibbotson and Joan Aiken, Australian author and illustrator Judith Rossell is a welcome addition to middle grade fantasy. Her illustrations have an Edward Gorey flavor that add a delicious gothic element to her stories. The two books were quite different: Withering-by-Sea is far more dramatic and frightening. The man who shared his secret with Stella is dead, and she is being pursued by an evil magician. Wormwood Mire is creepier – there is a sense of decay in the old house and fear of the creatures lurking in the lake; in addition, Stella is trying to decipher the tragedy of her childhood (which will take a third book).
Stella is an intrepid heroine, an orphan (✔) who likes to read (✔) unappreciated by her relatives (✔) ready for adventure (✔), capable of friendship (✔), brave yet vulnerable (✔). Some of my friends observed that Rossell has merely assembled some of the traditional elements of gothic fantasy and is not particularly original, but I think my ten-year-old self would have enjoyed these uncritically. While Rossell may not possess Ibbotson’s poignance or Aiken’s ability to create quirky characters, her books are entertaining and several of the characters are well portrayed and appealing: particularly, courageous Gert in the first book, and invention-loving Strideforth in the second. I especially appreciated A Garden of Lilies, the improving book given to Stella by her aunts, which is filled with aphorisms to intimidate any fun-loving child, such as:
Misfortune always comes to those/Who go to fairs and puppet shows.
Off the Blog: Tonight I attended a lovely party for the Boston-area Duke freshmen leaving for college in 5 weeks. It was so nice to see these young people meeting each other for the first time. I wondered if they were basketball fans and whether any lifelong friendships started tonight! I only saw one alumnus I knew but it was still a pleasant evening.
Source: Library copies. Thanks to Betsy-Tacy listren Katie Watts for the recommendation. I hope Jon Anderson and his Atheneum cohorts publish the third book in the US soon!
Images copyright to the publisher