Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Silent to the Bone by E.L. Konigsburg

When I was eight or nine years old, after reading From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg, I came up with a plan. In order to avoid a compounding pile of math homework corrections, I would run away to Chicago where I would find a museum to live in, much as the characters in From the Mixed-Up Files had run away and lived in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Unsurprisingly, my real life plan was not as successful as its fictional counterpart. I missed the city bus that was going to take me to the Greyhound station and I never recovered from this initial misstep. I was back home by 11 p.m. on the same day that I'd run away.

But the point here is, Konigsburg was the first writer to ever inspire me to take action, to do something about my life. It was the wrong thing to do, just as it is, ultimately, for the characters in the book, but still . . .

Silent to the Bone, a more recent work by Konigsburg, is similarly powerful. It centers around Branwell Zamborska, a teenager accused of shaking and dropping his baby half-sister, Nikki. Connor Kane, Branwell's best friend (or maybe former best friend as they haven't been getting along so well lately) is certain that Branwell is innocent. The trouble is, Branwell has been struck dumb since the 911 call after Nikki's injury. With Branwell remaining mute, he can't testify for himself and faces serious charges.

Connor discovers that he can communicate with Branwell by providing him with cards to point at. Using the cards, Branwell directs Connor to seek help from Margaret Rose, Connor's older half-sister (she's an adult in this novel, but she comes of age in a later Konigsburg novel, The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place). Together Margaret Rose, Connor and the mute Branwell perform detective work, researching and interviewing until they have a plausible theory of what actually happened to little Nikki.

Konigsburg excels at creating characters who are both flawed and completely likeable. While Connor's faith in Branwell's innocence seems unshakable, Connor sometimes loses sympathy for Branwell and in his frustration he can become childish and even vindictive. Margaret Rose's confidence and belief in Connor is endearing, but her attitude toward other characters borders on judgmental. All of the young major characters in the book are dealing with the consequences of their parents' second marriages and those parents all behave selfishly at times.

In the end, Connor discovers that Branwell isn't talking because there's something he simply doesn't want to talk about. There's plenty of that going around: children who don't want to confront their parents' selfishness, parents who don’t want to address their children's difficulties, friends who don't want things to change. The novel ultimately insists that confronting uncomfortable things is the only way forward.

In other words, not running away.

FCC: I bought this book before I reviewed it. I used my very own money.

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