Several years ago, we fell head-over-heels for a juggernaut of a series called The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart (see here and here). It’s a series that both of my girls carried around with them and read and re-read until the books appear very well loved. When Trenton Lee Stewart, author of the MBS series, published a new book earlier this year, I ordered it as soon as I got wind of it. I couldn’t wait to read it with my children; I secreted it in my office until the day when I could let my girls in on the secret: Trenton Lee Stewart has a new book and we’re going to read it together!
That was two months ago.
Yes, it took us two months of fairly consistent reading (4-5 days a week, most weeks) to finish this book. When I think about this novel, the word tome comes to mind. However, definitions of tome usually include the word scholarly, so that doesn’t exactly fit. However, at 501 pages, this book certainly fits the definition in every other way. And while it isn’t exactly scholarly, I wouldn’t call it easy reading or a breeze to follow.
The Secret Keepers is the story of a fellow named Reuben, a poor kid from the Lower Downs of New Umbra, who lives with his widowed mother who works several jobs to keep the little family afloat. His mother is his only friend, so Reuben spends his days skulking and hiding about the city. He prides himself on his stealth which enables him to go about the city undetected. Part of this includes his ability to climb–think Spiderman or even a parkour athlete, maybe. His stealth comes in handy because his city is under constant surveillance by The Directions, men employed by The Counselor (who is employed by The Fog). The Directions keep the city under their collective thumb, empowered by their mysterious bosses.
One day when Reuben is doing what he does best, he finds something hidden behind a brick at the top of a building: an antique pocket watch. This is where the real adventure begins, for the watch possesses the power to make its bearer invisible. Slowly, slowly (slowly), Reuben begins to unravel the mystery of the watch. What is it? Why is it magical? Whose is it? What is its origin? This eventually (after about 150 pages) leads him to a family with some of the secrets but not the complete solution to the mystery. The story takes off at about page 400 and Reuben and his new friends walk straight into the lion’s mouth (so to speak–actually into The Counselor’s chambers) to try to solve the mystery. The resolution of the story, at page 501, is satisfying enough but feels a little anticlimactic after such a long tale.
Can you tell I don’t love this story? Actually, upon reading this novel I think I’ve finally come to accept that some stories make good read alouds and some just don’t. Stewart’s style is so dense (I’d almost consider him a descendant of Dickens–almost, but not quite) that sometimes we just get lost in the words. Oh, his writing is lovely, but it is something to wade through. Also, because there are few characters in the first 160 pages, we spend an awful lot of time up until then (and even thereafter) in Reuben’s head. I would call this a very thinkerly book, which in my opinion makes it a difficult read aloud.
There are many things to commend in this book, though. It is much like the Mysterious Benedict Society books in that the characters are both quirky and likable–we definitely want Reuben and Co. to come out on top. Also, this book raises lots of questions and provides opportunities for discussion about truthtelling, motivation, and character–that sort of thing.
This a story that really deserves to be read alone, cuddled up under a cozy blanket, by the light of the Christmas tree. I’m glad we read it, ultimately, but I was super-duper glad to be through with it. I happily handed it off to Lulu for her to make her own solitary journey back through (Little, Brown, and Co., 2016).