Sunday, October 19, 2014

I Am Half Sick of Shadows

When I was in my twenties, I had a short-lived career as a middle school teacher.  One year I taught a sixth grade self-contained class, which I adored. I can still remember how gratifying it was when I saw the students get excited about reading—my passion—or to have the children propel me on a path of learning.  One such student was Leslie who lived near the school.  Leslie loved science, as did many of the other students. 

School pictures when I was middle school teacher!
Science was one of my least favorite subjects in school, but I tried my best to be a good science teacher, mostly by following the children’s lead.  We inspected earth worms bought at a local bait shop, and there were always cages of rodents, e.g. white rat, gerbils, mice, in the classroom when students’ mothers gave their children ultimatums that these pets had to find other homes.

That year when science fair time rolled around, Leslie wanted to do a specific science project.  She had an older sister in nursing school, and she liked to look at her sister’s anatomy textbooks.  Leslie decided she wanted to compare the bone structure of a chicken with that of a pigeon.  She made her mother cook a whole chicken, which was a feat because Leslie’s mother didn’t cook.  But they cooked the whole chicken and Leslie took all the meat off of it. 
However, when it came to boiling the flesh off a pigeon, her mother drew the line.  I got the school’s science teacher to order Leslie a pigeon and when it arrived, Leslie asked if she could stay after school and boil the pigeon.  I don’t remember if we used hot plates or if there was a home economics lab, but I did learn that cooking a pigeon preserved in formaldehyde is not a good idea!  The smell was awful, the fumes probably deadly, but I didn’t know any better.  Luckily the windows in the school opened.  The janitor came to see what we were doing, but I don’t remember the principal showing up. 

Ultimately Leslie had to complete this process elsewhere, but she persevered and somehow got the pigeon cleaned and her science project completed.  I’m not sure how she kept the skeletons together or if she was just interested in certain bones, but her project won the school science fair and went to the regional fair.
I think of Leslie, the budding scientist, when I read the Flavia de Luce mysteries, written for adults but featuring Flavia, an eleven-year-old sleuth and mad chemist whose life revolves around her love for chemistry.  Flavia sleeps in her laboratory in the rambling English mansion that belongs to her family.  She and her two older sisters are cared for by their forgetful father whose energies focus on his stamp collection and trying to save Buckshaw, his late wife’s ancestral home, from creditors.  Maternal nurturing in the household comes from the cook and from Dugger, a faithful family retainer who suffers flashbacks from his experiences as a POW during World War II. 

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows
Alan Bradley
(Delacorte Press, 2011)
It’s Christmas time, and Flavia and her sisters won’t even have their minimal holiday decorations this year because their father has rented their house to a movie company in an effort to raise funds.  The girls are ordered not to disturb the movie people when they arrive, but Flavia manages to befriend the famous actress Phyllis Wyvern, while another sister is given a walk-on part in the movie.

Then the village vicar weighs in and talks Wyvern and her co-star into performing a short pageant at Buckshaw to raise money for the church’s new roof fund.  The whole village turns out for the play, only to get stranded at Buckshaw by a blizzard.  When one of the acting company ends up dead, there’s a houseful of suspects and no way to notify the police.  Flavia’s scientific experiment to prove the existence of Father Christmas, aka Santa Claus, ends up exposing the murderer who tries to add the eleven-year-old busybody to the death toll. 

This novel isn’t my favorite of this series.  It is hard to keep straight the large cast of characters, the plot and motive for the killing are convoluted, but I do like Flavia.  Her penchant for concocting poisons is over the top, as is the sibling rivalry between her and her sisters.  The series, set in the 1950’s, uses exaggeration to create humor.
I Am Half Sick of Shadows is a line from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem, “The Lady of Shalott,” that describes a lonely woman isolated from the real world and implies that all is not as it seems.  There is a foreshadowing that something is going to change. 

Author Alan Bradley is a Canadian writer who was encouraged by his wife to enter a fiction writing contest sponsored by the Canadian Crime Writers’ Association.  The result was the first Flavia de Luce mystery, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.  He was affiliated with the University of Saskatchewan where he worked as Director of Television Engineering for 25 years.  He now travels and writes fulltime.  He has published six Flavia mysteries, in addition to screenplays and biographies.  The Flavia books are under option to be made into movies for television.

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