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The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

The Mysterious Benedict Society

by Trenton Lee Stewart; illustrated by Carson Ellis

Messianic child fantasy has a familiar enough recipe: gather one lonely child (usually an orphan), some stalwart companions, and a wise and benevolent elder, and place in a large, castle-like building. Sprinkle liberally with quirky helpers. Test the children with some minor challenges, and leaven their critical responses with kindly insights from the elder. When they are properly seasoned, have the elder tell them of a villain who is determined to destroy the world and inform them that, alas, though he will always be there to help them, he cannot defeat the villain himself but must send them on a dangerous and potentially fatal mission to save the world. Variations on this casserole can turn out cheesy, bland, or deliciously tasty, with a substantial mouth-feel and a complex blending of flavors. This last is the case with Trenton Lee Stewart's The Mysterious Benedict Society.

Reynie Muldoon, a lonely, gifted orphan, is encouraged by his beloved tutor to check out a mysterious newspaper ad seeking gifted children interested in "special opportunities." A series of cleverly conceived tests that challenge Reynie's integrity and cunning as well as his intelligence follows, and he finds himself in the company of three other children who have also passed the tests using their own singular gifts: Sticky has a photographic memory, Kate is a preadolescent MacGyver, and tiny Constance has a remarkable gift for undiluted obstinacy. The four find themselves in the home of a benevolent, narcoleptic genius, Mr. Benedict, who commissions them to find out what's behind a series of subliminal messages that are being broadcast from a private school on an isolated island. The children enroll in the school and, through deciphering a well-laid series of clues, discover that the messages are part of a plot for world domination devised by the headmaster, Mr. Curtain, who looks remarkably like their beloved Mr. Benedict. To foil the plot, the children must creatively employ their particular gifts: Reynie’s keen understanding of people's motivations, Sticky's formidable bank of obscure knowledge, Kate's athletic problem-solving skills, and Constance's ability to resist even the most seductive lures all play a part in defeating Mr. Benedict's evil twin.

More importantly, though, these four loners must overcome a lifetime of forced independence to forge a deep friendship and depend on their bond to bolster their individual strengths and dampen their foibles. Each of them has a strong motivation for distrust; they have all been hurt, mistreated, neglected, and misunderstood. Indeed, their largest challenge lies in overcoming their natural inclination to separate themselves and act only in their own self-interest, especially in times of great stress. The character arcs of Reynie and Sticky are especially poignant; their self-doubt and their desire to live up to their first-ever friends' expectations tap a deep vein of empathy that many readers will respond to. When they ultimately go their separate ways, the gestalt of their friendship has led them to be more open, more forgiving, and more able to love than they were before their ordeal.

In keeping with the gentle seriousness of his focus on the four characters, Stewart eschews the glib, intrusive narration that infects so much contemporary fiction for this age group. Instead, his atmospheric storytelling invites a reader to become absorbed in the world he has created, so that even the slightly cheesy mechanism that Mr. Curtain uses for mind control may be forgiven (what's a casserole without a little cheese, after all?). Dashes of mild humor and introspection rest on a solid base of suspense, mystery, and well-rounded characters, making this a satisfying dish for readers of varying tastes.

Karen Coats, Reviewer


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Cover image by Carson Ellis from The Mysterious Benedict Society ©2007. Used by permission of Megan Tingley Books/Little, Brown and Company.

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This page was last updated on May 1, 2007.