Sixteen-year-old Jacob Portman may seem like your standard poor little rich kid but really he’s a “peculiar.” And the only way for him to find happiness and a like-minded community is to flee his privileged life in Florida and retreat to a wind-swept island in Wales. Now if he can just find a way to deal with the murderous monsters who follow him there.
Jacob’s parents have lots of money, but he couldn’t possibly be less happy about his status as the sole heir to Smart-Aid – his family’s chain of drugstores that is “spreading across the state like some untreatable rash.” Bright but lonely and alienated, Jacob loves only his grandfather, Abe. Once he hits adolescence, however, he finds it harder to continue absorbing Abe’s odd stories about fleeing Europe to escape from monsters. Sure, everyone agrees, Abe deserves lots of sympathy as the only member of his Polish family to survive the Holocaust, but after a while, they decide, enough with the monster stories.
That is, until Abe is mysteriously murdered in the woods near his Florida home. The police swear it was a pack of wild dogs that got him but Jacob is not so sure. Could his grandfather have been telling the truth all along?
That’s the setup for Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, one of the more fantastically entertaining young adult books of the summer. Debut novelist Ransom Riggs liberally sprinkles his book with a series of vintage photos around which he has constructed his plot. Depending on your taste, you will find the photos either totally cool or kind of creepy, but either way they feed the book’s atmospherics and help to convincingly set much of it in a time loop – an odd chasm in the space-time continuum in which the day Sept. 3, 1940, plays over and over again.
Jacob does eventually make his way to Wales. His parents send him there on the advice of a psychiatrist named Dr. Golan (and yes, that does sound kind of like “Golum,” doesn’t it?) to seek out the “orphanage” where his grandfather took refuge during the war. The sheer cliffs, ghostly clouds, and abandoned cottages of this lonely island make the perfect backdrop to the sci-fi/fantasy type mystery that Jacob must sort through in order to save himself and the cluster of other “peculiars” that he unites with there from certain doom.
Kids who like Neil Gaiman and adults who love Susanna Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” will find common meeting ground here in “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,” where a handful of the world’s neglected and forgotten “peculiar” folk rise again to tell their stories and attempt to discover a niche for themselves in the world as it is today.
Anyway, it’s all great fun, and as long as you don’t get too freaked out by the thought that your middle-school bus driver and/or the gray-suited commuter on the train every day might really be a murderous “wight” tracking your every move, you’re almost guaranteed to enjoy this neat summer offering.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s books editor.