Fourteen-year-old Faith is moving from Kent, England to the island of Vale, but circumstances don't add up. Her family doesn't usually go with her father, Reverend Erasmus Sunderly, on scientific trips and their hasty retreat from Kent has left her "...full of questions, coiling and writhing like the snake in the crate." Faith and her seven-year-old younger brother, Howard, sense her parents fog of unsaid words, whispers, and knowing looks. The two wonder when a disreputable man approaches Erasmus after church and hints at some oncoming scandal involving her father. But their questions go unanswered because they are children and their parents feel the need to protect them from the truth. Faith decides she'll look for answers by spying and eavesdropping on conversations and she discovers that her father is involved in some kind of fraud.
Faith adores her father, but is a second citizen in the family because she is a female. She is bright but all eyes are on Howard, for he is a boy that can make a name for the family as an adult. A daughter, on the other hand, cannot and is dependent on men to provide her living expenses as an adult. Faith desperately wants to be a natural scientist but that is not the way of the world during the Victorian era. While traveling to Vale, the carriage gets bogged down in the mud with all of the family's luggage. Faith's father humiliates her by keeping an importance piece of luggage, instead of her. Forced out of the carriage Faith rummages through his trunks to try and find some answers to her questions.
She knows that she is not important to her family and that she is not respected in her culture because she is a female. It drives her crazy. Faith is extremely bright and self-taught. She wants to go to school but only Howard can because he is a male. She wants to discuss excavations and science with her father, but she can't because it is not proper for a female to show she is clever. She is given the smallest room in the house where they were staying in Vale and she is delegated to eat with Howard in the nursery instead of sitting with the adults. She wants to go to the Vale excavation site but can't because she is female. Whenever she does get to the site it is by manipulating the men around her. She knows Howard is afraid but her father wants him at the site so she offers to take her brother. She plays Dr. Jackler and Mr. Lambert against each other using their jealousies and egos to get her way. She's clever and quiet but simmering with anger. Her anger spins and grows inside her like a complex spider web building in strength and increasing in size as the story progresses. She is pressured to be an invisible girl by the adults around her, but she sneaks around and spies on people because it gives her some sense of power and control over her life.
Faith's hunger for knowledge is so great that she seeks out conversations and does not mind being told facts she already knows. When she asks Dr. Jackler if he is a craniologist he frowns at her and stops talking. She backtracks and asks him if that was the right word so he can feel superior to her in the conversation. He falls for the ploy and starts talking again. Angrily, Faith thinks, "Right now, somebody was talking to her about science, and if she sounded too knowledgeable he would stop." She remembers trying to impress her father and colleagues as a young child by being clever and meeting uncomfortable silences. Her mother calls her "absurd" when she asks if an artifact is a glacial needle. She thinks something is wrong with her and that she is a "freak of nature."
Faith is trying to fit in with society's image, definition, and socialization of women, but finds it impossible. "Rejection had worn Faith down. She no longer fought to be praised or taken seriously. Now she was humbled, desperate to be permitted any part in interesting conversations." Doctor Jacklers then goes on to tell Faith that men's heads are bigger than women's; hence, they are more intelligent than females. Twisting the knife deeper he adds that too much intellect in a woman's brain "...would spin and flatten it, like a rock in a scuffle." Faith is crushed by his comment because he uses the science of craniology to justify putting down females. She always thought that science did not judge her because of her sex.
Faith's mom, Myrtle, is a manipulative social climber who is not close to her husband. In fact she is afraid of confronting him. She won't even confront Howard on using his right hand over his left and insists that Faith do it instead. This setup is necessary to the mystery for Faith acts in ways that the parent should and it explains why Myrtle was afraid of going against her husbands orders. When the housemaid, Jeanne, is accused of reading her father's letter, Erasmus attacks Myrtle unfairly for Jeanne's behavior showing his disregard and condescension toward woman, "I know to my cost that there are limits to the female understanding." Myrtle shrinks under his scathing comments. Their marriage is one where his word is God and he does not seek his wife out for discussions.
*spoiler alert* I am abandoning my attempt of a book review. I want to use this for book club with grade 5 students so the rest is an analysis/summary that will trigger discussion questions as I won't read this until the spring with students.
Jeanne is accused by Erasmus for a crime that Faith committed, but Faith doesn't want to tell her father because she is afraid of losing his love. When Faith sees Jeanne weeping and dismissed, she goes to tell her father the truth. Even though Erasmus is a Reverend he has no forgiveness inside him and he explodes in anger when Faith tells him she's clever. He berates her and says a girl cannot be clever or brave like a boy, but she must be honest; however, while honesty is essential for a woman or girl, it is not necessary as a man. He cruelly says, "You will never be anything but a burden, and drain on my purse" because she is a woman who will not have a career but must rely on a man's charity for room and board. He makes it clear that she is of no value to him unless she can "hold steadfastly to the path of duty, gratitude, and humility." Then he asks her help for a secret mission and tells her to lie and deny it if anyone asks her about it. Faith, being clever, sees right through his hypocrisy. And even though he is a jerk, it is clear Faith loves him unconditionally.
After their mission her father shows up dead. It looks like a suicide but clues don't make sense and Faith thinks he was murdered. Her mother tries to cover up the suicide and has the two men that retrieved Erasmus's body lie and say they found his body in the Dell and not on the cliffs. Myrtle gets the others to agree, but one won't lie if he has to swear on the Bible. The Bible represents truth in this story, but science and evolution suggest it has lies in it. The author uses these two opposing viewpoints to add great tension throughout the story in imagery and different theories about the creation of man. Faith hates her mother's lies, but starts to think about how she condemns her mother for lying and realizes that her high moral path is not being honest with her own self. "She could brush away her mother's lie like a cobweb. But how many of her own strands of untruth would she destroy with the same gesture? Besides her last experiment with truthfulness had burned her to the core." The latter refers to her going to her father and confessing that she snooped in his personal belongings and read a letter, instead of the wrongly accused Jeanne.
Jeanne spreads rumors and half-truths that suggest her father's death was a suicide and at the funeral the people block him from being buried. Jeanne is mad at Faith's family because her mother berates her for how she cut the bread and is not nice to the servants. Faith gets back at Jeanne by using Jeanne's superstition to pretend her father's ghost is haunting her. Women were not encouraged to think for themselves and Faith uses science to debunk superstitions, so while Faith has learned that the old wive's tales are hokey, most of the townspeople believe them. The author shows how local superstitious beliefs are easy for Faith to manipulate and how uneducated people, such as women represented in Jeanne, are one of the reasons for them believing in ghosts.
Faith notices clues that don't add up regarding her father's death and becomes suspicious. Why didn't her father shoot himself? He had a gun with him. Where was the gun? It wasn't found on his body. Why was the wheelbarrow in the wrong place from when they brought it back after their secret mission? What was the mysterious letter burnt in the fire? Faith discovers her father's secret mission was to hide a magical plant called The Mendacity Tree or The Lie Tree, a plant that grows when a person spreads lies. In return the person can eat its fruit and learn secrets. Faith thinks someone wants the tree and that is why he was killed.
Faith is given her father's notes that she hides and reads in secret to learn about the tree from a scientific point of view. She symbolically stores her father's notes in the Mandarin snake's cage. The author uses snake imagery to describe Faith's feelings and refer to the Bible's story of Adam and Eve. As a result, the story becomes a rich allegory of truth and lies or knowledge and ignorance. Faith's father writes in his journal how others wish to believe lies. "The will cling to it, even if it is proven false before their face. If anyone tries to show them the Truth, they will turn on them and fight them tooth and nail." When his vision showed him that man did descend from apes rather than the Creation story in the Bible, he did just that, he turned on it and fought it tooth and nail. He didn't want to face that the Bible might be false. Erasmus wanted scientific proof of the Bible, just like Faith wanted scientific proof that women were as important as men. Neither finds evidence, but while Erasmus gave into lies that led to despair, Faith gave into truth and moved forward with hope.
The author weaves the Bible's creation story in with Faith's life morphing religious images into her own unique creation. Adam and Eve had the perfect life in the Garden of Eden, control over everything and direct communication with God, but they were forbidden to eat from one tree: The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Eve was duped by Satan in the form of a snake to pick fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. Adam and Eve were innocent and pure like children before picking the fruit, just like Faith is called “innocent and pure” by her mother when she refuses to let her testify at the hearing. Here, Hardinge plays on Victorian novels and Romanticism that focus on the child as innocent. Faith is far from innocent and is a knowing child that is "invisible" to adults.
Adam and Eve fell for Satan's lies and the result showed humans from then on had personal choices between good and evil, the experience of loss, and the death of their bodies. This is mirrored in Faith's father who chose wrong-doing and lost his career and life because he was self-delusional in his quest to scientifically prove the Bible was correct literally. He doesn't know that trees like the one in the Bible story show up in other creation stories, many much older than the Bible. Erasmus missed the symbolism in the Bible story that showed humans have choices that lead to consequences. People can choose to be honest or dishonest, they can murder or do good, they can help others or destroy them, they can use power for selfish reasons or not. Faith has a better grasp then her father's fundamentalist mentality because she has been marginalized by society and she has more empathy for the human condition.
Faith decides to use the Lie Tree to discover her father's murderer. When she first visits the Lie Tree it hisses like a snake. When she tells the tree her lie, that her father's ghost will seek revenge on those who wronged him, she methodically goes about creating it. She adds his tobacco to the fire to get his smell in the room, she switches the bell chords to sound like he is ringing for service, then she puts a gash in the curtain covering a mirror to keep his spirit from escaping and haunting the house. She plays off superstitions and likes the control it gives her that people don't suspect the shy, prim daughter of the household is the culprit.
Faith starts to examine clues to try and determine the murderer. She wonders why her father jumped off a cliff where a tree was in the way versus the side that had a clear shot to the beach below. She points out to Dr. Jackler that it was too clumsy for her father. When she asks about the bump on the back of her father's head and suggests someone hit her father from behind, Dr. Jackler condescendingly tells her she has read too many novels. At this point she realizes she must find the killer herself.
Faith is embarrassed by how she first approaches the plant using emotion versus the scientific method. She resolves to ask questions, observe, and use logic. Magic, she thinks, is an excuse to avoid looking for answers and cling to superstitions. After she studies her father's notes on the plant she determines that The Lie Tree is a symbiote, an organism that profits with another one from being in partnership with it. Faith takes her father's field kit and takes samples from the tree to study. She also takes a fruit that has grown from the lie she spread about her father haunting the house. She has a vision and discovers that Miles used her family to get access to the Vane excavation. She realizes that someone planned the murder and is linked to the excavation. She also wonders if the broken basket that almost killed her and Howard was intended for her father.
Her next lie is about buried treasure and duplicity that leads to theft, violence, and arson. The lies have grown beyond her control and are destructive and dangerous. Her first lie scares Jeanne so much she refuses to eat and it looks like she'll die. Jeanne is cruel and ignorant. She laughs when the townspeople were cruel to Myrtle. Faith chooses to seek revenge but changes her mind when she realizes it hurts her more than the victim. "A lie was like a fire, Faith was discovering. At first it needed to be nursed and fed, but carefully and gently. A slight breath would fan the new-born flames but too vigorous a huff would blow it out. Some lies took hold and spread, crackling with excitement, and no longer needed to be fed. But then these were no longer your lies. They had a life and shape of their own, and there was no controlling them!"
In an ugly confrontation, Faith gets attacked by her Uncle Miles when she won't give him her father's papers. Myrtle shows her tigress side and her character becomes more three-dimensional when this happens. She hits Miles with a poker to get him to leave Faith alone. Myrtle shows that she is not an idiotic shallow person, but one that will fight for her children and her own rights. She could have sided with her brother, Miles, because she did want Faith to give him the papers, but instead she protects Faith. Myrtle explains to Faith that when someone commits suicide the Crown takes everything they own, but that wouldn't happen if she gave her property to Miles. Faith is flabbergasted by such an unfair law. So often adults hide truths from children wanting to protect them when they should really be upfront and explain the situation. "The truth had been hidden from her, and she had been slapped for not knowing it."
Faith confronts Myrtle about everything she doesn't like about her personality: how inappropriate it is for Myrtle to be encouraging suitors right after her father's death, as well as, her vanity and her extreme attention she gives to her appearance. Faith is frustrated that her mother accepts Erasmus's death as suicide and won't listen to her suspicions. Myrtle explains her actions to Faith as fighting for her family's survival and using the only weapons she has - her looks. She describes women being on a battlefield with no weapons and unable to show they can fight. "But fight we must, or perish." Faith realizes that her comment to her mother and thoughts of hatred or "you disgust me" as being hypocritical like when her father scolded her for reading his letter. How could Faith claim a higher moral ground when her own actions had hurt people too? She slowly empathizes with her mother and by the end the two show that they can respect each others differences.
Faith kept telling Howard that ghosts only hunt bad people and if he was a good boy and said his prayers and copied his scriptures the ghost wouldn't haunt him. But Howard can't copy scriptures because he is a lefty. Children were forced to use their right hand and Howard had a jacket designed so that he couldn't use his left. Faith had to ensure he wore it under Myrtle's orders. Howard asks the Wise Man (or Faith) from the play theater they made if it was all his fault that his father was dead and haunting the house. When the Wise Man says "no" but that Faith will go to Hell because she has been bad, Howard rips the character up symbolizing the death of Faith's oracle. The Wise Man is supposed to tell the truth, but this is really a lie because Faith is the real voice behind the pretend character. Howard needs to see Faith as a woman and Faith needs to change from being invisible to the world to visible even though it will mean rejection from most. It takes courage to stand alone and pave new roads where none have gone before. Faith will do just that if she embraces becoming a scientist. Next, the two kill the lie that has been dodging Howard which is denying that he is left-handed. They rip up the jacket, showing they are prepared to accept the truth and the consequences.
In a subplot Faith becomes friends with Paul, the curate's son. He is only person she has confided her suspicions to and he helps her try and capture the murderer, but theirs is a rocky friendship. When Faith goes to the tree and Paul follows her, she confronts him with a gun and says she will shoot him. Her lies have twisted her so that she can't see right from wrong. She has two choices: harm Paul and embrace evil or darkness or enlist his help. She realizes that she has never lied to Paul and thinks of the different types of lies: kind lies, frightened lies, predatory lies, half-lies, self-delusional lies, and more. She realizes that her father didn't help Winterbourne and let him die because he coveted the tree. She is disillusioned that her father, the man she idolized and compared to God, would choose to let a man die rather than help him. It is difficult when children realize their parents are human.
When Faith tells Jeanne that she was the ghost, Jeanne responds with anger and hatred. Faith does not and it shows her growing up and taking responsibility for her actions, as well as, letting go of her anger. She says that she got a "tiny ribbon of herself back." Faith chose to not be like her Father. She does not want someone to die because of of her lies. Then she concocts a way to get the murderer to confess with Paul's help; however, she is wrong in her deductions and almost dies as a result.
Faith shows great empathy with her enemies as well as those she likes. She realizes that the murderer is similar to herself as Faith understands "calculated, cold-burning revenge." Again, Faith chose to not give into her anger to the point of taking another life. Faith cleverly escapes but allows herself to get captured when she realizes that the rest of her family's life is in danger. She shows that she is not so different than Myrtle who was doing all she could to ensure that her family would have a roof over their heads and food on their table. The character arc of Faith shows a girl seeking revenge, finding it within her power to really harm those who have wronged her, but rejecting it for compassion and love.
In an exciting conclusion, Faith thinks about how she is not credited for her part in solving the murder and becomes invisible again. She is not full of anger any more and she resolves to fight for her rights even though she knows she will be ostracized and isolated. She also reflects that her father didn't forgive her but she forgives him. Forgiveness is the step to letting go of hatred and not seeking revenge. Myrtle supports Faith at the end with her notion to be a scientist. Myrtle does not feel sorry for herself and regrets that her husband never opened up to her. When Myrtle starts concocting a plan to get Clay, Paul's dad, her late husband's rectory position, Faith is no longer disgusted but sees Myrtle as a "perfectly sensible snake, protecting her eggs and making her way in the world as best she can."
Hardinge's book shows what happens when people try to oppress other people and don't treat them with respect, how relationships filled with lies and anger are destructive, and how each person has a choice to do good or evil in the world. The complexity of the book and weaving of themes and genres is quite brilliant and if you have read this long-winded analysis or summary, then you might feel like you did the hokey pokey and turned yourself around. I know I have. I've never picked a Carnegie Medal contender before but I hope I see this one get some kudos.