Monday, May 20, 2013

The Water Castle by Megan Frazer Blakemore

Hey folks, meet Ephraim Appledore-Smith, your average kid. I repeat, average. He used to think he was pretty smart until moving to Crystal Springs, Maine. Here everyone is a genius and most live longer than the average Joe Schmo. Ephraim goes from first to worst at school and it is not easy on his ego. Then he starts to wonder what the heck is going on. The town residents, teachers, and students are not normal with their sky-high IQ's. Even his smart sister and athletic brother have gone off the charts since moving there; unfortunately, this strange phenomena eludes him. When he hears the story of people coming to Crystal Springs in the past because of the healing waters, he wonders if that's the reason people are so smart and if it will cure his dad who has had a devastating stroke. The family has inherited the Crystal Springs castle that is now their home with the hope that their mom's mentor doctor-friend can rehabilitate their dad. History of the castle reveals that the healing water was bottled by relatives and sold to people all over the country before the hotel spa burnt to the ground. The bottled water business gave the Appledore family its fortune and the castle its name, "The Water Castle." Ephraim decides to dig into the castle's past and discovers his ancestor was looking for the Fountain of Youth and he takes up the same quest in an effort to heal his father.

Ephraim, his younger sister, Brynn, and older brother, Price, notice the loud humming the house makes and the strange blue glow at night and wonder about it. Ephraim thinks it is related to the healing waters and initially gets assistance from Brynn searching for it, but he soon realizes that he needs more specific help. He forms an unlikely friendship with classmates Will, who is brilliant at science, and Mallory, a black girl with in-depth knowledge of the castle because her family served the water castle owners for generations. Will's relatives have nursed their hatred for Ephraim's family's success for years, convinced that Ephraim's relative stole their idea of bottling the magical waters. Will desperately wants to erase this bitterness in his father and change him from one is jealous of others to one who is content. Mallory's parents are in the middle of a divorce and she wishes they could be a family like in the past. The two are drawn to Ephraim's quest and adventure to find magical waters that will heal his dad, not realizing that they all need healing too.

The characters internal struggles give this story a richness and depth that pulled me into it. Some might feel the start is too slow and be turned off by Ephraim's initial attitude and stupidity, but he changes as the story progresses and his clumsy attempts at socializing make for an authentic character. Teenage years are wrought with awkwardness and Ephraim fluctuates between being a kid who believes in magic and listens to his parents, to one believes in science and facts, and who talks back to his parents in an effort to grow up. Throw in Ephraim's anger and you have a complex personality who is grappling with loss and major life changes. I was discussing this novel with a colleague and she suggested that perhaps Ephraim represents the difficult transition from elementary to middle school. In elementary school, classes are small and students can feel smart. In middle school, students get lumped in classes with everyone else and the discovery that they are a "number" and "ordinary" can be a difficult maturation process. Ephraim also has the middle child syndrome where he is trying to find his place in the family hierarchy. Price is filling in for their father, trying to support their mother and Brynn, while Brynn is the baby who loves those around her. Ephraim, on the other hand, struggles with his identity and lashes out at his mother and siblings.

Not only does this novel deal with three sixth graders transitioning from childhood to adulthood, it tackles the hefty question of living for eternity; thus, creating a magical realism that mixes science fiction with reality. I've only read, "Tuck Everlasting," by Natalie Babbitt that attempts exploring this theme in children's literature. The subplot of Nora and Harry ties in with this theme and while I liked how Blakemore intertwines the story, she had some contradictions and left some plot elements hanging. I like that the ending is open to interpretation, but I didn't like some of the loose ends not wrapped up such as the bottle in the ground with the contradictory message in conjunction with what Mallory's parents discuss on page 179. (I'm being vague here on purpose - I don't give spoil a plot twist.) I also didn't understand in the subplot how Nora could be so highly educated (she knew French and Latin) and why the Jim Crow laws prevalent during the 1900s that disadvantaged African Americans economically, educationally, and socially were never reflected with Nora's situation. She doesn't face racism or discrimination in her story. I wondered, too, the connection between Ephraim's high radiation reading and how it prevented the healing waters from working in him. Perhaps there will be a sequel.

The author's mix of science, history, magic, and realism is well-done and marvelous. Creation stories evolved from humans trying to explain natural phenomenas. Science usurped these stories with their explanations over the years and the three characters use the scientific method to explore the healing properties of the water through the study of radiation, electricity, and genetics. The explanation of the Fountain of Youth in scientific terms is quite creative. The subplot reinforces this theme and Orlando's formal way of speaking helps set the tone of a time past. The writing is nothing short of terrific.

Ephraim was a fresh breeze in my recent profusion of book reading that has been laden with genius protagonists.  I love that Ephraim is normal. No Mr. Genius. No superpowers. Just a kid who discovers that he is normal and that's okay.  I hope if there is a sequel Ephraim does not become a genius. I like him just the way he is.

A great book club book.

Reading Level 5.9
4 Smileys

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