Are you a gifted child looking for special opportunities?
This peculiar ad draws in gifted children from all around America. But only the bravest, most clever, and most good natured children make it, only to be sent on a dangerous mission where rules are twisted, deceit is strongest, and the worst seem to win. Strong characterization complement a ever-changing plot and quirky narration. You'll never be bored when you join the Mysterious Benedict Society!
Reynie Muldoon is an orphan when he finds the above ad in a newspaper. He responds to it and in return navigates his way through a number of tricky brain benders and tests. Left standing are he and three other children, all with their own peculiar gifts and ways of solving the puzzles. Sticky Washington is gifted with factual memory. Kate Wetherall, a former circus performer, is strong, athletic, and flexible. Reynie himself discovers he has a remarkable ability for solving puzzles. And Constance...well, nobody knows what to make of the obstinate toddler who answered none of the test questions and instead wrote long and irritated poems on the back of the paper.
This "society" is called together by Mr. Benedict, a mysterious but kind middle aged man. Mr. Benedict gives them a dangerous mission that he claims only they can accomplish-infiltrating a school run by a Mr. Curtain, who Mr. Benedict suspects of trying to control minds through subliminal messaging in radio and television. The school, the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened, is Mr. Curtain's base and the location from where the messages are being sent out. Their job is to infiltrate the LIVE, spy on Mr. Curtain, and find out more about how the messages are being sent.
Inside the institute, the Society navigates the waters of friendship, and uncover the horrible plan of Mr. Curtain to take over the world. They each develop their particular gifts, and communicating by Morse Code, slowly reveal the scheme to Mr. Benedict..and to us.
The plot may be far fetched, but it is redeemed by the quirky, fast paced, often tongue in cheek narration and dialogue. Every plot point is thoroughly experienced and scoured. So much happens during their time in the Institute that it seems impossible to explain clearly, but Stewart accomplishes this masterfully.
Second to the brilliant narration is the characters. One thing that makes them seem so believable is how they waver from decision to decision, much like real children. An example: while they all help Rhonda Kazembe find her pencil at their own risk, they talk about Constance behind her back and openly doubt her uses on the mission.
Several themes are explored in this novel.
-Friendship: The Society didn't choose to be together, and often at times they are frustrated with each other. They put up with each other for the sake of the mission, and by the end, they discover that everyone has their unique abilities and talents, and each person needs the other.
-Trust: The society barely gets to know Mr. Benedict before they decide to place their lives in his hands. When the Institute feeds them lies, Reynie finds himself beginning to doubt Mr. Benedict-Does he really have their best interests in mind? Why would Mr. Benedict put us in such danger?
-Fear: The Society is put in the clutches of The Whisperer, the mind control device which sends the messages. One of it's first questions is: What is your worst fear? Mr. Curtain uses the children's fears against them, which forces them to confront their own fears. The Whisperer also soothes and hides fears, which makes many of Mr. Curtains henchman clamor to use it.
"So it's just a wonderful illusion!" Martina(one of Mr. Curtain's lackeys) says. "That explains why the fears come back later. I've always wondered about that-when I'm in the Whisperer they seem to have gone away forever." To which Mr. Curtain responds: "Sadly, no. The only way fears truly disappear is if you confront them. But who in the world wishes to confront his or her worst fears?"
Mr. Curtain claims that his Whisperer will make people happy. But, he explains, it only makes people happy by denying their fears and erasing their memories and replacing them with his own. Readers discover that his plan to take over the world relies on people's fears. Those fears, Mr. Curtain claims, are something that he can really depend on. Everyone is afraid of something, he says.
The ingenuity and cleverness of the children is delightful and entertaining. I had a blast watching the Society come up with risky plans and schemes and holding my breath with them waiting to see if they would go through.
No one actually dies. Milligan, another protagonist, uses a tranquilizer gun rather than the real thing.
Structurewise, not much.
The plot matter is surprisingly serious for a childrens book. The depictions of mind control may disturb some. Also, miscreants are forced to serve time in "The Waiting Room", a room where they are forced to sit in mud blindfolded while insects crawled around them. This is never actually depicted, but is described by the characters.
About halfway through the story, they are directed by Mr. Benedict to cheat on their quizzes at the Institute. With some doubt, they go ahead and invent a code to share the answers. Sticky is caught cheating, but he lies his way out of it and they never actually have any consequences. It does give light to this interesting conversation between Sticky and an institute executive, SQ.
This is some advice SQ gives Sticky right before he goes in to face Mr. Curtain for cheating.
"My point is", SQ said. "Don't blow your chances right off the bat. Whatever you do, do not admit to Mr. Curtain that you cheated. If you did cheat, I mean. I'm not saying you should lie. That's even worse. Don't admit to cheating and don't lie."
"You're saying my best course of action right now is to not have cheated in the past."
Sticky manages to do both, admitting to cheating but then lying about Martina making him cheat.
Sticky ran away from home.
Realistic children's books(non fantasy) with children as protagonists often end up being this "Children are smarter than the dumb adults" thing. That is not what The Mysterious Benedict Society is. The Mysterious Benedict Society is a wondrous dive into the world that we didn't know about, delivering plenty of laughs, surprises, and morals along the way.
More then anything else, The Mysterious Benedict Society brings out nostalgia and longing for a simpler time. A time when children could just be children and take delight in the simplest things. A time when adults were wise, strong, and mature and children were respectful, conscientious, and courageous. And also..a time where children's books could be fun and unique and meaningful, and not charged with toilet humor, wizards and vampires, and petty drama.
A winner for the extraordinarily gifted and the ordinary alike.