Middle School Monday – The Shrunken Head (Curiosity House #1)
We all feel, sometimes, as if we a re living in a house full of freaks; in this case it’s true. Philippa, Thomas, Sam and Max are all orphans living in and working for Dumfrey’s Dime Museum of Freaks, Oddities, and Wonders in the New York City of the 1930’s. Owned and operated by Mr. Dumfrey, who also serves as the children’s guardian, the museum is staffed and peopled by a collection of sideshow-like performers: a fat lady, a little person, alligator boy, elephant man, giant, etc. Additionally, the museum houses a collection of artifacts and wonders from around the world, each with a fascinating (if often manufactured) provenance. The four children add their particular skills to the performances, and use them to their advantage throughout the story. Philippa is a mentalist, although she has only developed her powers to reliably read the contents of other people’s pockets. Thomas is a contortionist; he is part of multiple acts, but spends most of his time traveling through the museum’s ventilation shafts and eavesdropping on conversations. Sam is a strong man (or boy) whose superhuman strength is a disadvantage at times. Max is a knife throwing phenom who is also a gifted pickpocket.
When Mr. Dumfrey comes into the possession of a ‘shrunken head’ – “Straight from the Amazon! Delivered only yesterday!” – he has high hopes that it will generate renewed interest in the museum, whose ticket sales have seen better days. Even better, a local newspaper reporter (Bill Evans of The Daily Screamer) comes to the unveiling and is both impressed with Philippa’s abilities and drawn to the shrunken head (which causes one elderly visitor to faint.) Later that evening, Evans visits to interview the elderly woman and finds her dead, having hurtled over the edge of a balcony. He immediately claims the shrunken head has a curse, much to the delight of Mr. Dumfrey, who enjoys a good bit of free advertising through sensational journalism. Unfortunately, the shrunken head is stolen, and more deaths follow its path. The children are curious as to who may have stolen the famous artifact and investigate, overhearing snatches of conversation, finding bodies, and running afoul of the law. Evans takes advantage of their curiosity to grill them for a follow up story which attracts the interest of local ‘do-gooder’ Andrea von Stikk, who wants to take the children away from what she sees as a vey unfit home. It looks like she may have a chance, too, when Mr. Dumfrey is arrested for murder!
Lauren Oliver has created a completely engaging work with The Shrunken Head (Curiosity House #1).
Although the story is told in third person, the narrator’s focus shifts equally between all four of the main characters, revealing their thoughts, concerns, and interests. Each is a fully developed individual with unique strengths and weaknesses that work together to compliment the whole. The adult characters, while not as fully realized, are also not the focus of the story. Oliver has been careful to make each an individual, though, and not fallen into the trap of stereotype. I do love the fact that Phoebe, the ‘world’s fattest woman’ is a marvelous dancer – and that when she leaves the woman who auditions to replace her is found lacking for not being fat enough, and advised to “consider adding more carbohydrates to your diet.”
Although each of the children has reservations about being a ‘freak’, it is clear that they both love and are loved by every one of Mr. Dumfrey’s performers. It’s obvious that each of the children and adults in his employ has value to Dumfrey and is more than just an oddity to be enjoyed, but a family member to be loved. Complete with a fun twist at the end, this novel proves to be the auspicious start to a wonderful new series. I highly recommend purchasing it for your middle grades readers.
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Filed under: Middle Grade Monday
About Robin Willis
After working in middle school libraries for over 20 years, Robin Willis now works in a public library system in Maryland.
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