Thursday, April 24, 2014

Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee

"She had expected magic to be simple and tidy, with people disappearing in puffs of smoke - not slowly, by degrees, in a lonely, aching way." What a great line. Not only does it describe the boy who is magically fading from the world, but it reminded me of illnesses and aging. My mom has Alzheimer's and I feel like she is fading by "...degrees in a lonely, aching way." Ophelia Worthington-Whittard, the 11-year-old protagonist, has recently lost her mom to cancer and her father and older sister are dealing with the loss in different ways. Her sister has become cranky and removed from the world while her dad is completely absorbed in work. He doesn't want to talk about their mom's death at all. The family moves to an unnamed icy-cold city where her father has been hired to curate an exhibition of swords that is opening in a short while for the city's museum. Ophelia explores the museum that is full of curious and odd collections. When she discovers the imprisoned Marvelous boy that has no name, she must decide whether to free him or not and save the world from being destroyed by the Snow Queen.

Ophelia does not believe in herself and this story is as much about her growing in confidence and learning to deal with loss, as going on a quest to free the Marvelous boy from his entrapment and save the world. Ophelia has asthma and deals with her fears by taking a puff on her inhaler when her life is in endanger. The plot is predictable as to what sword is arriving, what will happen when the clock winds down, what happens to Alice, who is the Snow Queen, and who is the One Other. The boy gives his background story as to how he ended up trapped in the room. It is given in small doses and interwoven into the storyline showing a lonely, self-centered king that makes friends with the Marvelous boy only to be bewitched by the Snow Queen. The setting creates a wonderful mood and the writing spoke to me about loss. The themes of friendship, self-worth, and grief add depth and complexity lacking in the simple plot. The author puts in enough mystery that I kept wondering until the end if Ophelia was making up the entire story in her head. Her dead mother was a famous writer who believed in ghosts, vampires, and strange creatures.

Ophelia struggles with denial during her quest to help the Marvelous boy. She counters her imagination and what is happening by talking about facts and thinking of Children's Science Society of Greater London; how the members would be disgusted with her for listening to the boy and believing in magic. As the story progresses Ophelia hears her mom's voice in her head guiding and encouraging her on the quest to free the boy and find the magical sword. Ophelia slowly puts faith in her imagination rather than always being pragmatical. When the Marvelous boy gives her the magical sword he commands, "Ophelia Jane Worthington-Wittard... I invest in you the power to be the defender of goodness and happiness and hope." When Ophelia wields it at the end it symbolizes her slaying unhappiness and moving on in her grief over the death of her mom. At the beginning of the story she rationalizes everything and at the end she learns to trust in her imaginative, emotional side.

The story of her saving the boy is so closely connected to her mom and her mom's voice inside her head that I wondered if Ophelia was making the entire fantasy up as a way to deal with her mom's death. Is she saving the Marvelous boy or her mom from dying of cancer? She misses her mom so desperately that she counts to the hour when she died. The boy has also lost his mom by having to go on a quest to defeat the Snow Queen. When Ophelia meets the ghostly girls I was wondering if her mom would make an afterlife appearance. This tension made me look forward to the ending even though the plot was predictable with the reader knowing well in advance the characters that are the One Other and Snow Queen. The mom being the storyteller and writer sets-up this dynamic in an unexpected way. Other details such as the coat pocket being a source of comfort when she thinks of her mom and later being ripped off symbolizes her mom being ripped from the family's lives.

A major theme is courage that is found not only in Ophelia's actions but the subplot involving Kyra and the magical owl, Ibrom. Both make choices to help others; the result being betrayal to the group they belong to. Both courageously act to help someone trying to do a good deed rather than blindly following their groups and not questioning decisions. Mobs, peer pressure, or following the group for the sake of belonging is not as good as thinking for oneself. Sometimes people must take a stand. Kyra does this by sacrificing her ghost life to save Ophelia, while Ibrom decides to serve joy and the good quest the Marvelous boy was on versus sorrow. The magical owls collect all the sorrows of the world for the Snow Queen and she stores it in her sword that she will use to destroy humanity.

Another theme is about not judging outward appearances. As the Marvelous boy puts it, "The biggest trap is to judge a person by their outer casing." The Marvelous boy sees good in Mr. Pushkinova and the girl has been learning to trust the boy's instincts throughout the novel. At the end she calls upon Mr. Pushkinova to help her find the boy because he believed in his goodness. Much of the story is around believing in others to do the right thing. Even the magical owl decides to help the boy as he is dying. The owl is tired of the Snow Queen destroying good things whether it is young children or adults. He thinks the Marvelous boy's quest is impossible against someone as powerful as the Queen, but when the boy says he's sorry for shooting the owl, Ibrom decides he wants a piece of the boy's goodness. The two exchange pieces (literally) of themselves and the boy receives a charm while Ibrom eats the boy's finger.

Some of the characters are references to classics such as the girls ghosts using "The Three Musketeers" motto, "All for one, and one for all" meaning they must remain loyal to each other no matter what. The twist here is that they are loyal to the Snow Queen that represents evil. Ophelia in Hamlet goes mad and the character in this book is thought mad by others when she tells her fantastical stories. The magical tree and garden are found in much folk lore and of course, the Snow Queen is based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale. Ophelia's sister, Alice, made me think of "Alice in Wonderland" although she's more like Susan in the Narnia Chronicles. However Alice in Wonderland plays with logic and the plot of Alice going down the rabbit hole into a fantastical world foreshadows Ophelia's crazy adventures.

This book taps into the aspect of children feeling powerless in the world of adults and trying to have an impact even though they don't have the authority. Ophelia has to obey her dad even though she must save the world and he thinks she's making the whole story up. The Marvelous boy is helpless against the King and Snow Queen. The two find ways to deal with this adult authority that will appeal to young readers. While this book has some uneven parts and I was looking for more of an internal resolution with Ophelia in the death of her mother, I found it a satisfying story. If you liked Anne Ursu's, Breadcrumbs, then give this one a whirl.

4 Smileys

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