________________ CM . . . . Volume XI Number 21 . . . .June 24, 2005


The Valley of Secrets.

Charmian Hussey. Illustrated by Christopher Crump.
Toronto, ON: Viking Canada/Penguin, 2005.
382 pp., cloth, $25.00.
ISBN 0-670-06380-0.

Grades 5-8 / Ages 10-13.

Review by Joan Marshall.

** /4



A large area of the lower part of the field was more like a bog than a meadow; tufted tussocks of coarse grasses in an oozing sea of smelly mud. But Stephen pressed on with enthusiasm. He could hear the sound of running water.

Amongst the misty trees in the valley, he could make out the line of a small, gushing river.

He crossed the boggy terrain with difficulty, slithering and sliding from one grassy hummock to the next, till he found himself at the edge of a lake, lined by reeds and tall yellow iris. It was partly silted and overgrown; but there were still large areas of open water. Toward the middle he could see the upturned rims of gigantic water-lily leaves. They reminded him of Kew Gardens, but they seemed quite out of place here.

Stephen crept quietly toward the lake, hoping to catch sight of some wildlife, maybe frogs or fish or newts. He was moving slowly around the edge, when a weird cry rang out. It came from the reed bed ahead of him - a ghastly, gobbling, gurgling call, which brought him to a sudden halt. The call was almost immediately answered from a number of places around the lake, the very peculiar gurgling calls echoing in the still, dank air.

Standing almost glued to the spot, Stephen stared fixedly at the reed bed just a few feet ahead. When nothing happened, he put out a foot and started edging slowly forward. There was a rustling amongst the reeds, then, with a loud plopping noise, a large greenish-brownish body flopped quickly into the water. The creature disappeared in a flash, leaving Stephen standing there, staring down at the churning water—unpleasant, sludgy-looking water.


Stephen Lansbury, an orphan, inherits his great uncle's estate, Lansbury Hall, in Cornwall. But when he arrives, no one seems to be there, although the gate and the door are unlocked. Stephen's suspicion that he is being watched is clarified when he meets an elderly South American Indian, Murra-Yari, a secret ward and friend of his great uncle, Theodore. Reading about Theodore's travels to the Amazon with B. (who turns out to be Bertie, Stephen's lawyer), from his great uncle's five ancient diaries thrills Stephen but not as much as discovering the different species of Amazonian Bugwomps nurtured on the estate by the two elderly friends. Determined to fulfill the conditions of Theodore's will, Stephen learns everything he can from Murra-Yari before a recurring bout of malaria kills the old man. Murra-Yari's gold necklace provides enough money for Stephen to manage the estate, and a young girl related to Bertie turns up at the gate to help him.

     There is a great deal of description, mostly of plants and the landscape, that, although it sets the rich scene vividly, may impede the plot too much for the intended age group. Stephen is an intense botanist—most children would find this very odd—and spends much of his time glorying in nature (having been stifled in the city for so long) and worrying about the environment, particularly the Amazon rain forest. The author is vitally interested in the plight of indigenous people, and she comes perilously close to lecturing when Theodore and Bertie are exploring and when Stephen is reading Theodore's diary. As Murra-Yari teaches Stephen to manage the estate, the reader also feels as if a crash course in survival techniques is being offered.

     What saves this novel from utter tedium is the spooky mood in the first part: what is watching Stephen? In the last half of the book, the adorable Bugwomps, their antics and their attachment to Murra-Yari and Stephen, will hold the reader's interest.

     The language is clearly British English. There are many terms, expressions and even specific words such as "whilst" that lend the novel a formal tone that Canadian children may see as pretentious. Good readers, however, will recognize it as style and will happily adjust. Much of the book consists of Stephen's reading Theodore's diaries, a plot device that allows for information from the past to be included, but one which slows down the action. This long, intricate British young adult novel will attract younger children who read very well or those fortunate enough to be read aloud to.

     Stephen grows from a tentative, childish, fearful boy into a strong, confident, compassionate young man, much like his great uncle Theodore. The fact that he doesn't have to work, that he has an inheritance he can live on, will not be lost on class-conscious British children. Note also that he does not go to school. His education comes from the land and the wisdom of Murra-Yari. Canadian children will be unfamiliar with the size of estates like Lansbury Hall and the money needed to run them. All will delight in Stephen's freedom and his friendship with Murra-Yari, who seems like a gentle, kind grandfather. Stephen's relationship with Tig, the Bugwomp, will attract all the animal lovers.


Joan Marshall is the teacher-librarian at Fort Richmond Collegiate in Winnipeg, MB.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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