Strange things had happened at Innisfree before. In fact, strange was usually normal at Innisfree. But what had happened the night before was a new sort of strange. A frightening, unsettling sort of strange, the sort of strange that nags at you when you try not to think about it, flickers behind your eyelids when you try to go to bed at night and won’t let the sleep come.
Sadie hadn’t come home.”
The setting is the backwoods of Mississippi during the Great Depression, and Sadie is the wannabe poet and writer mother of our heroine, Tennyson. She disappears during a game of hide-and-seek, at dusk, when Tennyson, her little sister Hattie, and their father Emery come home but Sadie doesn’t. Emery is so besotted with his Sadie that he goes to look for her and leaves the girls at his childhood home, a decaying hulk of a Louisiana plantation home called Aigredoux. There the two girls make the acquaintance of their long estranged family members:
Aunt Henrietta Fontaine, a faded Southern matriarch who writes dozens of letters on thin blue paper to the U.S. government each week, asking them to return her family’s fortune, lost in the Civil War, so that Aigredoux can be restored to its former glory.
Uncle Twigs, the President of the Louisiana Society for the Strict Enforcement of the Proper Use of the English Language.
Zulma, the black servant, cook, and confidante, descendant of slaves, who stays at Aigredoux because “there’s more of my family’s bones buried out back than there are Fontaine bones. Aigredoux belongs just as much to me as it does to you–more so, maybe.”
While reading this hauntingly strange Southern novel, I felt as if Blume were channeling Faulkner—for children. Then again, I’ve never actually read Faulkner, so how would I know? The atmosphere of faded and rotting gentility built on a foundation of slavery and brutality was so strong and was just what I would imagine would be found in Faulkner’s novels. Aigredoux “pushed its way into Tennyson’s dreams and made her see funerals and spiders.”
I must say that I liked this novel, but I’m not sure children or even most teens would “get it.” It’s not very realistic, but then I’m not sure it’s meant to be. (SPOILERS) Tennyson dreams things that actually happened. Then, she writes stories that are accepted by a New York magazine and published to universal acclaim. No explanation is given for these events. No ghosts. No clairvoyance. No magic. No precocious genius. Zulma does call Tennyson a “voodoo girl.”
Still, there was certain something about the story that has me still thinking about it days after reading it. Tennyson might be for the poet and the dreamer and the quirky, individualistic wild child in all of us.
The Reading Zone: In many ways, Tennyson reminded me of Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting. Both books treat children as intelligent human beings by handling realistic situations and stories. Yet they both embrace the magical realism that is all too often missing in children’s fiction.