Title: Cousins in the CastleCousins-in-the-Castle
Author: Barbara Brooks Wallace
Pages: 152
Recommended Ages: 11-14
Star Rating: ★★★★

Welcome to a world where nothing is as it seems, and most of the time it’s much worse than you could imagine…

The Story.

Amelia Fairwick lived a life of ease and joy. Although bereft of her mother at an early age, she was pampered by her father and was soon to gain a new mother in the lovely and kind Felicia Charlton. Amelia could not have been happier. Then tragedy struck.

One day, Amelia received news that her father died in a hotel fire while on a business trip in America. Because her Papa had not yet married Felicia, she must be sent to live with her new guardian – a man named Cousin Basil whom she has never met or heard of before. To meet him she must journey to America. America?!?

It is Cousin Charlotte who comes to bring Amelia back to the States. Amelia is scared – if Cousin Basil is at all like his sister, Cousin Charlotte, then she is headed towards a grim existence. But it seems that Amelia is not destined to meet Cousin Basil, for as soon as they have docked, Cousin Charlotte disappears into the crowds, leaving Amelia behind on the dock.

As Amelia faces criminals and kidnappers, she wonders – who has planned out these events in her strange new life? And will she ever find her Cousin Basil?

Discussion.

Ms. Wallace’s story was very well – I repeat, very well – crafted. It was full of twists and turns and read like an actual piece of literature rather than a children’s no-brainer. The characters and setting of Cousins in the Castle actually reminded me a great deal of Dickens’ works – mostly his Nicholas Nickleby and The Old Curiosity Shop. Ms. Wallace’s world is a world in which ninety percent of humans are sly, conniving, grasping, sinister creeps. (That may explain why the story reminded me of Dickens.) This portrayal of adults could have been a stereotype, but I thought it was handled well. It is made obvious from the beginning of the story that some adults are good people and that Amelia loves and respects these.

However, for most of the story, Amelia is having to outwit and escape the evil adults who are trying to kidnap, imprison, and eliminate her. She is helped in this adventure by a young friend who has also been mistreated by those over him.

So here’s the situation. Amelia is placed in the custody of Cousin Charlotte, a grim-faced, harsh, non-relational old battle-axe. She gives strict instructions to Amelia directing her conduct and attitude. These Amelia initially resolves to obey – she is too scared to consider not obeying – but as she considers their unreasonableness and is tempted to disobey them, she decides that she need not listen to Cousin Charlotte.

Now, Cousin Charlotte in an authority figure in Amelia’s life. Granted, she is cruel and disinterested in Amelia’s welfare or best interests. Granted, in the end she turns out to be a bad guy. But at the time that Amelia is disobeying Cousin Charlotte, she does so, knowing that she is under Cousin Charlotte’s authority. This theme was not defiling, and may be used to discuss the correct response to unjust leaders.

While on board ship, Amelia makes friends with a little girl named Primrose who is part of an entertaining troupe. Later, in New York, when Amelia is lost, she finds Primrose again and asks for her help. At this time, Primrose reveals that she is a boy who dresses up and sings like a girl in order to make enough money to stay alive. His idea on how to protect Amelia is to dress her up like a boy and tell an untrue story to his managers about who she is. (If they knew who she really was, they would try to ransom her.) Amelia agrees and they proceed with their plan, although it eventually fails.

Conclusion. As an older reader, I enjoyed Cousins in the Castle immensely. If found its plot to be fresh and engaging while its characters were lively and real. However, the above cautions should be taken into consideration before giving Cousins in the Castle to young readers.

Review © 2013 Laura Verret

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