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Thursday, October 13, 2011

Ransom Riggs: "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children"

Author: Ransom Riggs
Title: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
Plot Type: Fantasy with a touch of horror
Ratings: Violence3; Sensuality2; Humor3
Publisher: Quirk Books (6/2011) (Currently available in hardback, paperback, e-book, and audiobook CD)

     Riggs seems to have channeled both David Lynch and Stephen King as he put together this eerie time travel novel, which has become a New York Times best seller. The book itself is lovely, with thick, smooth pages, great cover art, and wonderfully creepy vintage photographs interspersed to coincide with points in the story.

     Here's the plot set-up: All his life, Jacob Portman, now 16, has listened to stories told by his grandfather (Abraham Portman) about his life in a remote Welsh orphanage during the early days of World War II. Abraham had been sent to the isolated island orphanage by his Polish parents when the Germans began their persecution of the Jewish population of Europe in the late 1930s. The stories that Abraham tells about Miss Peregrine's Home are strange and rhapsodic: "...the sun shined every day and nobody ever got sick or died. Everyone lived together in a big house that was protected by a wise old bird." (p. 9) Abraham also tells fantastic stories about his fellow orphans, bolstered by a box full of bizarre old photographs. In those pictures, Jacob sees images of what appear to be an invisible person, a girl floating in the air (see the cover art), and a person with two faces, among others. Abraham's happy stories, though, are always followed by stories about horrible monsters "who "stank like putrefying trash" and who had "packs of squirming tentacles...inside their mouths." (p. 9) As a young boy, Jacob believed Abraham's tales were real, but as he grew older, he began to see the stories as total fiction—as bizarre fairy tales.  

      Early in chapter 1, Abraham is savagely murdered by an unknown assailant—unknown to everyone, that is, but Jacob. When Jacob finds his grandfather's body in the woods, he also sees a monster peering out from the trees—the monster from Abraham's stories. As Abraham dies, he urgently whispers a few cryptic phrases to Jacob. From that point on, Jacob's life changes completely. No one believes his monster story, but he can't give it up and he has constant nightmares about that monster. This results in unending visits to a psychiatrist, ridicule from his peers, and disbelief and pity from his parents. 

     Eventually, Jacob talks his parents into allowing him to visit Cairnholm Island in Wales, so that he can visit the location of his grandfather's orphanage. He convinces them that if he visits the actual location of Abraham's tall tales, he will be able to come to terms with his grandfather's death once and for all. Jacob expects to find the orphanage still intact, but he discovers that the house is wrecked and abandoned and the occupants are long gone. Here is Jacob's ominous first view of the orphanage: "My grandfather had described it a hundred times, but in his stories, the house was always a bright, happy place—big and rambling, yes, but full of light and laughter. What stood before me now was no refuge from monsters but a monster itself, staring down from its perch on the hill with vacant hunger. Trees burst forth from broken windows and skins of scabrous vine gnawed at the walls like antibodies attacking a virus—as if nature itself had waged war against it—but the house seemed unkillable, resolutely upright despite the wrongness of its angles and the jagged teeth of sky visible through sections of collapsed roof....Then I came around back and saw...a doorless doorway, bearded with vines, gaping and black; an open mouth just waiting to swallow me. Just looking at it made my skin crawl, but I hadn't come halfway around the world just to run away screaming at the sight of a scary house....I mounted the crumbling steps and crossed the threshold." (pp. 79-80) According to the locals, the island was bombed and the house destroyed by the Nazis. Jacob is shocked to learn that September 3, 1940, is an important date in the town's history because that is one of the phrases that his grandfather whispered as he died.

     Up to this point, the story has been set in a normal-world context (except for the monster, of course), but now things get mysterious and goose-bumpy. As Jacob makes repeated visits to the ruin of the old house, he finds himself in a world in which the word "peculiar" actually means "magical"—a world in which some of those "peculiar" children from his grandfather's stories might still actually be alive—and the monsters may be after them, too!

     This is a spine-tingling, spooky fantasy that the author illustrates with vintage photographs he has collected over the years and then slipped into the story line. Libraries are split 50/50 on where they are shelving this book, with half going with YA and half placing it on the adult fiction shelves. Despite the fact that the hero is a teenager, the story is very adult in its focus, with its blending of World War II and Holocaust history, monster tales, magical time travel, and family relationships. 

     Although the plot wears thin at times, the overall effect is substantially shuddersome. The book fits many descriptions: a coming-of-age novel, a time travel story, a monster-in-the-dark tale, and a paranormal fantasy. Whatever the description, it's a great read that will keep you engrossed all the way through. Riggs plans a sequel in the near future, and a movie is in the works.     

     Riggs does a great job of setting up scenes with powerfully descriptive foreshadowing. The following paragraph put me in mind of the dramatic opening scene in David Lynch's classic film, Blue Velvet, where we watch a beautiful morning unfold in a white-picket-fence suburban neighborhood, with birds singing and flowers bloomingbut then things begin to go terribly wrong (Click HERE to go to a YouTube video of that scene.) Both the print and film scenes ratchet up the suspense when they drop a macabre note into a picture-perfect, Mother-Nature moment: "It was an almost-too-perfect morning. Leaving the pub felt like stepping into one of those heavily retouched photos that come loaded as wallpaper on new computers: streets of artfully decrepit cottages stretched into the distance, giving way to green fields sewn together by meandering rock walls, the whole scene topped by scudding white clouds. But beyond all that, above the houses and fields and sheep doddering around like little puffs of cotton candy, I could see tongues of dense fog licking over the ridge in the distance, where this world ended and the next one began, cold, damp, and sunless." (p. 101)

     Click HERE to go to an article about the German bombing of Wales during World War II. Click HERE to go to an article explaining the Kindertransport, a program that facilitated the transport of European, mostly Jewish, children to safety in Great Britain just prior to the outbreak of World War II. Click HERE to go to a history of the Holocaust in Poland. Click HERE to go to a history of the Jews in Poland.

     Click HERE to to go to a Quirk Books web page that contains links to PDF downloads of the first three chapters of the book. Click HERE to view Riggs' excellent book trailer on YouTube. Click HERE to watch a fascinating YouTube video Riggs took while he was putting together the book trailer. It is entitled A Most Peculiar Trip: Searching for Miss Peregrine. Click HERE to read a fascinating NY Times interview in which Riggs explains how a collection of vintage snapshots morphed into his first novel. 

The movie rights have been sold to 20th Century Fox, and Tim Burton is slated to direct (projected release date7/31/15).

Below are thee of the vintage photographs Riggs has woven into the story. Click HERE to view a pdf file with full-page shots of all of the photographs in this book.

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