The Figure in the Shadows is the second of John Bellair’s series of gothic mysteries featuring Lewis Barnavelt. Eleven-year-old Lewis is an orphan and lives with his eccentric uncle Jonathan in New Zebedee, Michigan. Of his uncle’s peculiarities, one in particular stands out: the fact that he’s a wizard. And his next-door neighbour, Mrs Zimmerman, is a witch of even greater power.
Lewis’ best friend is Rose Rita, and in The Figure in the Shadows the two get involved in a spooky adventure that begins when Grandpa Barnavelt’s supposedly lucky coin ends up in Lewis’ hands. Strange things begin to happen: Lewis receives a letter in the middle of the night that says venio (I come), he begins to have strange dreams, and when he goes out he can’t shake off the feeling that he’s being followed by a shadowy figure. What could be the meaning of all this?
In The Letter, the Witch and the Ring, Rose Rita takes the stage. While Lewis goes off to Boy Scout’s camp, she accompanies Mrs Zimmerman on a trip to a farm that her late cousin Oley left her. Just before he died, cousin Oley wrote her a strange letter: he was absolutely convinced that he had found a magic ring. When Mrs Zimmerman and Rose Rita arrive to the farm, they find the place turned upside down and the mysterious ring missing. As you can imagine, this is only the beginning of a long series of inexplicable events.
I really enjoyed these two short books, especially the second. Like The House with the Clock in its Walls, the first book in the series, they were spooky and atmospheric, but never actually scary. They were full of cosy everyday scenes, of loveable characters, of bits of insight, and of human moments.
John Bellairs’s books are fun, fast-paced, engaging, and comforting reads, but this doesn’t mean they lack substance. While they might not be as complex as some other children’s books, I admire them for their willingness to tackle difficult issues and to portray children as they actually are.
Both Lewis and Rose Rita are smart and unpopular kids. Though Lewis is no longer as lonely as he was when we first met him, he’s still bullied at school, and sometimes he can’t think of anything other than how to get back at those who make his life miserable. Though Lewis is often a victim of cruelty, he’s capable of being cruel himself, and acknowledging this only makes him a more believable and sympathetic character.
As for Rose Rita, as she grows up we see her having to deal with increasing pressure to behave like a “young lady” and not like a tomboy. In The Letter, the Witch and The Ring she is thirteen, and those around her keep telling her that now that she’s leaving childhood behind, her relationship with Lewis will have to change. As they enter their teens, they will either start dating or grow apart. Fortunately she has Mrs Zimmerman, who knows better than to pressure her to grow up or force her to follow rigid definitions of what being a young woman has to be like. She just lets her be herself. And although by the end of the book some of these issues are still unresolved, we do get to see her become a little more comfortable in her own skin.
As someone who was also a bit of a tomboy (though I don't like the term), I could relate to Rose Rita, which is one of the reasons why The Letter, the Witch and the Ring is probably my favourite book in the series. I just have one small complaint: while the first book was illustrated by Edward Gorey, these two have illustrations by Mercer Meyer and Richard Egielski, and while I didn’t dislike them (though I found that Meyer’s were a bit too cute for the mood of the story), it’s just not the same.
Unfortunately, John Bellairs passed away before he could write any more books in the series, which was continued by Brad Strickland. Normally I don’t like the idea of a series being continued by anyone other than the original author, but books 4, 5 and 6 were plotted and actually begun by John Bellairs. I’d really love to continue to read about these characters, so I think I’m going to give them a try.
Stuff as Dreams are Made On (The Figure in the Shadows)
Stuff as Dreams are Made On (The Letter, the Witch and the Ring)
somewhere i have never travelled (The Figure in the Shadows)
What Kate's Reading (The Letter, the Witch and the Ring)
(Please let me know if I missed yours).
First of all, I want to thank you all for your enthusiasm about the Christmas Swap. After just one day we already have more participants than there were altogether last year, which confirms my impression that the book blogging world has been growing. I hope everyone has as much fun as we did last year!
Secondly, and still on Christmas-related blogging events, Kailana and Marg are once again hosting the Blog Advent Calender. I had a lot of fun with this last year! The goal is to have bloggers post Christmas-related things in December - a different person each day until Christmas Eve. For more details, and info on how to sign up, visit Kailana or Marg. There's a prize involved too!
Finally, Kate at What Kate's Reading is giving away a copy of Going Postal by Terry Pratchett. People often ask me which Discworld book I recommend that they start with, and this one would actually be a good choice. It's an excellent book, and it's the first to introduce Moist von Lipwig. So go leave Kate a comment before the 16th to be entered in the giveaway.
Edit to add: The Friendly Book Nook is organizing a Christmas Book Swap. We both posted yesterday without knowing about the other's swap, but as they work differently, people can join both and get something different out of each. Click here for more details!