CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 18 . . . . January 13, 2012
Mika, 12, is unhappy at home. Her three younger brothers are holy terrors. Her father is excessively grouchy and withdrawn since the death of his father. Her mother is struggling to control the boys and relies on Mika to do many chores and restricts her activities. On the evening when the story begins, Mika has completed her chores and has been allowed to leave the house to walk to her friend Aimee's house for a brief visit. Her walk takes her by two houses and a section of old growth forest. (Though the setting is never stated to be British Columbia, it is certainly implied.) After passing the second house which is abandoned and very creepy, she takes a break lying on the floor of the forest, something she finds very soothing and peaceful. She loses track of time and is about to hurry on to Aimee's when she hears the plaintive cry of a cat in trouble. Mika is fond of cats and can't bear to leave this one in trouble. She follows the sound of the cat's cries to the abandoned house. Despite her fears, she breaks into the house to locate the cat and discovers it locked in the parlour. She finds the house very creepy, as if someone were looking at her, and she notices a painting in the parlour of a beautiful, but haughty looking, woman with a dog. The painting has a name plate that reads "Lucinda, Hunter, and Cloud." Mika deduces that the woman is Lucinda and the dog is Hunter, but wonders who Cloud might be. Black shadows seemed to spill out of the portrait. Mika knows this must be a trick of the light, but she flees with the cat. After she leaves the deserted house, three doors slam loudly.
Mika is successful in smuggling the cat, which she names Angel, into her house. Mika introduces Angel to her friend, Aimee, the next day when they meet at their "camp", a cabin in the woods that both families have helped fix up. The girls are frightened by a large black wolf-like creature that seems to watch them from the woods. It reminds Mika of the dog in the portrait. Mika's mother mentions seeing a large black dog slinking around the property as well. The cat is discovered by her little brothers whose roughness was the primary reason Mika wasn't allowed a pet. With patience, she shows her little brothers how to treat the cat gently. A family council decides that the cat may stay, but that Mika must put up posters to see if anyone has lost the animal.
Mika has seen her parents arguing, but her father's temper seems to have improved, particularly when his mother arrives for a visit. Grandma seems to have a beneficial effect on everyone's state of mind. But, when Mika returns to the camp to pick up her forgotten backpack, she finds things out of place as if someone had been there. A message is painted on her back pack – GIVE HER BACK, NOW! While Mika is at school the next day, an arrogant woman comes to her house and claims the cat as hers. Angel is gone when Mika gets home from school. Mika and Aimee once again rescue Angel from the abandoned house. Though Angel is injured and the girls are pursued by the big black dog, they make it to Aimee's house where they enlist Mika's father to take Angel to the vet as she has cut paws and a lump on her ribs as if she has been kicked. The vet agrees that the cat has been abused, and Mika's father says that they will not give Angel back to the woman who had previously claimed her. The woman confronts them on the road on their way home, and she threatens that, if they don't return what is hers, they will regret it the next day. The plot accelerates with kidnapping, search, confrontation, flood, bridge collapse and fire following rapidly one after the other.
Angela Dorsey has created a tightly plotted mystery thriller for upper elementary readers. Using only eight pages to set up the situation, Dorsey begins the plot with the crying of the cat. The shading of the creepiness of the house will set readers' nerves on edge. And, while an adult reader would be immediately suspicious of the woman in the painting, an elementary reader may be less so. The plot is well balanced between mystery elements, including the scary dog and the threatening woman from the portrait and the elements of family life, the boys yelling in the bathtub, Mom and Dad arguing, and grandmother's coming to visit.
Mika's problems with younger brothers and love for cats will appeal especially to girls. Readers will also appreciate her, however brief, success in hiding the cat from her parents and the freedom offered her in her "fort" in the woods. Mika is typical of many 12-year-olds in her annoyance with her younger siblings, her desire for freedom, her unease in the spooky house, and her anxiety over the perceived tensions in her parents' marriage. Unlike many 12-year-olds, she is able to overcome some of these difficulties. She learns things about herself, and, when the situation requires it, she is able to stand up to the things she fears. She faces the spooky house, and she stands up to the woman from the portrait to save her brother. She also learns patience. She realizes that her brothers' rough behaviour is the primary reason she cannot have a cat, and, as a result, she patiently teaches them how to be gentle with Angel. At the conclusion of the story, Mika has come to appreciate her brothers despite their noise. She is a strong character.
Dorsey occasionally succumbs to the temptation to use an overblown descriptive phrase, and, for example, refers to the "huge trunks spiralling into the sky", "the forest giants", and, when speaking of the flooded river, says, "She'd never seen such raw power, such fearful might." However, Dorsey's prose is most often economical and to the point, and again, an elementary reader is unlikely to notice these phrases.
The cover art is unfortunate and not appropriate to the age group for which the text is suitable. Additionally, the title is not indicative of the central parts of the plot. Lucinda has stolen years from her family by trapping them in paintings, and she could be considered a time thief, but this fact is discovered almost incidentally near the end of the story and is only known to Mika. The plot is primarily concerned with the abuse of the cat and the kidnapping and rescue of Mika's younger brother.
Rebecca King is a Library Support Specialist (Elementary and Junior High) with the Halifax Regional School Board in Halifax, NS.
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