or The Fiendish Mystery of Smugwick Manor
or The Loosening of M’Lady Luggertuck’s Corset
by Tom Angleberger (w/illus. by author)
Amulet Books, 2011
206 pages, hardcover.
Loved Origami Yoda* so when I saw Mr. Angleberger had another due, I requested it from the Library…yes, it took this long.
“There are so many exciting things in this book—a Stolen Diamond, snooping stable boys, a famous detective, the disappearance of a Valuable Wig, love, pickle éclairs, unbridled Evil, and the Black Deeds of the Shipless Pirates—that it really does seem a shame to begin with ladies underwear” (1).
It was an odd segue to finish watching BBC’s Downton Abbey: Season One (2010) and begin reading Horton Halfpott. Downton Abbey is a series about both the family and the servants who live in the palatial home called Downton. In Horton Halfpott the invisible workings of an aristocratic estate is also featured—Horton being the humblest member of the staff—a kitchen boy, doomed to wash dishes and polish silver for a mere penny a week. However, I am guessing that a middle-grade boy would find Downton Abbey considerably less interesting than Horton Halfpott, despite the fact that both harbor “unbridled Evil.” For one, there are yet to be any Shipless Pirates, and, two, it would be highly improper to discuss ladies underwear or heroes’ armpits in Downton Abbey.
So Horton Halfpott isn’t nighttime telly or PBS Masterpiece Theater. Nor was it meant. And while Tom Angleberger cites Charles Dickens as inspiration, the 203 pages of Horton Halfpott is considerably more lightly weighted. The narrator caters to the middle-grader who partakes in juvenile humor, knows about various smells, and cares only to stomach the slightest hint of romance—okay, so maybe not just the middle-grader.
The Narrator is a storyteller eager to share this story about Horton Halfpott, and how “the Loosening” made way for all kinds “Unprecedented Marvels.” The Dear Reader is energetically addressed as one who is sure to find the comedy and the heart in Horton Halfpott’s story; as one who can empathize; and as one who can smile at the appropriately “inappropriate” times.
“When Portnoy S. Pomfrey solved the Case of the Sultan’s Sapphire, the sultan kindly offered to reward St. Pomfrey with anything he wished. St. Pomfrey asked for the hand of the sultan’s daughter in marriage.
When the sultan pointed out that his daughter was already married with three children, St. Pomfrey said he would settle for the “magnificent carriage” parked behind the sultan’s palace instead.
The sultan was too polite to tell St. Pomfrey that this was really the Royal Outhouse. Instead, he ordered the outhouse set on wheels and shipped to England. St. Pomfrey has ridden in it ever since, always wondering about the lingering odor and lack of windows.”(49-50)
Horton Halfpott isn’t a naughty, mischievous boy protagonist just for the sake of it. And he tries to do what is right, even when everyone else is “misbehaving.” He has to be his own person, and clever, and brave. And he still figuring out what that means exactly.
“Horton was undergoing a Loosening of his own. […] Perhaps, he began to realize, not every preposterous pronouncement of M’Lady Luggeruck needed to be obeyed. Nor every tyrannical decree of Miss Neversly. Nor every unwritten law of propriety that prevented kitchen boys from befriending young ladies” (140).
The characters are marvelously ridiculous; though not to be dismissed, of course. Many are quite dangerous. The ones who hold the power are most especially threatening. Alas, the adventure wouldn’t be much of one without peril, and the villains wouldn’t be nearly so terrifying if they hadn’t resembled Luther, or M’Lady, or the spoon-wielding cook Ms. Neversly.
It is wonderful that the corset is not an Enhancer, but a tormentive restriction that creates the greater horror that is M’Lady Luggertuck. “Imagine being pinched like that day after day, year after year. It could make a nice lady into a mean one. So imagine what it would do to a lady like M’Lady Luggertuck, who was a nasty beast to start” (2). Better is how the corset comes to symbolize repression and indignity in varying degrees for all the characters (and greater society). [Don’t worry, it’s subtle enough.]
One thing I love about the narrative is how the narrator will reference another story—nothing Literary I assure you.
(You’ll notice that forks were not mentioned. Faithful readers will remember that M’Lady Luggertuck had had a fear of forks ever since the events recounted in “M’Lady Luggertuck Hires a Tattooed Nanny.”) (55).
“Old Crotty soon discovered that someone had ransacked M’Lady Luggertuck’s writing desk! This upset M’Lady Luggertuck greatly, since she had several letters in that desk that it would have been best if no one else had ever read. (See “M’Lady Luggertuck Meets a Handsome Frenchman.”)” (66)
There is plenty of comedy and adventure in the course of a mystery of a stolen diamond, and the narrator is keen to engage the reader in it. I think you should oblige him or her. You can save Downton Abbey for another time.
Horton Halfpott had me thinking of Kate McMullen’s fantastic chapter book series Dragon Slayers’ Academy (Grosset & Dunlap); we read this series to Natalya when she was in early elementary school–fun for the whole family.
Don’t let this be only a boy’s book, girl’s will appreciate–at the very least–the character Celia, a independently thinking girl who is quick, and owns a bicycle.
*my review of Origami Yoda.
and Darth Paper Strikes Back comes out late August 2011! yay!