“This one is special,” concludes the Kirkus review of The Water Castle, by Megan Frazer Blakemore. Indeed it is. This middle-grade mystery/fantasy twines together such disparate threads as the Peary-Henson Polar expedition, turn-of-the-20th-century medical quackery, the fragile demarcation between legend and history, and a sixth-grader’s equally fragile sense of self.
Their father’s catastrophic stroke takes Price, Brynn and Ephraim Appledore-Smith from their home in Cambridge to Crystal Springs, Maine, to take up residence in the titular Water Castle, the huge, almost architecturally impossible mansion built on the grounds of their mother’s family’s old “curative”-water bottling company and resort. Ephraim’s hopes of wowing the rural locals with his big-city smarts are dashed when he discovers that not only are the Crystal Springs kids no dumber than he is, they are a lot further along academically. He reluctantly falls in with Mallory Darling, whose family has historically worked for his, and Will Wylie, whose family has a generations-old grudge against his.
Their current-day story is intertwined with the 1908 tale of Nora Darling, assistant to eccentric Orlando Appledore, whose forebear Angus brought the family to Crystal Springs in search of the Fountain of Youth. She and Orlando’s great-nephew Harry become friends as Orlando pursues his obsession and Robert Peary and Matthew Henson pursue the North Pole. Though the tale’s resolution is an entirely satisfying one, it is nevertheless daringly ambiguous, leaving it to readers to argue over what our review called “a doozy of a revelation.”
To get a sense of how these threads came to be so meticulously tied together, I sat down with Blakemore in the school library where she works. Blakemore can’t remember a time when she didn’t want to be a writer, and she finds that her day job as a librarian nurtures her avocation beautifully. Beyond the obvious dovetailing of research with writing that librarianship lends itself to, she has daily access to her audience. As she was polishing off the final drafts of The Water Castle, she was working with a group of energetic middle school readers, mostly boys, using them as a “touchstone.” “Sometimes people will say, ‘Oh, kids won’t get that,’ or ‘It’s above their heads,’” Blakemore says. “But when you have a group of kids that you’re with every day, you can say, ‘Yeah, they’ll get this,’ and that’s enough to keep going.”
Blakemore certainly isn’t afraid to challenge them, planting references to Frankenstein (“It’s set in the Arctic!”) alongside one of her childhood favorites, Anne of Green Gables. “I liked the importance of stories in Anne’s life, in the same way that stories are important in the lives of [my characters’].” Given that her book is so much about the way stories both written and oral shape understanding, it’s no surprise that Blakemore gives her readers ample opportunity to consider them.
And she hopes to inspire children to seek stories out. Though, ironically enough, she professes not to love research, Blakemore says that she had so much fun researching the Poland Spring House (which inspired the Crystal Springs resort), the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum and the Thomas Edison National Historical Park, she realized that “kids could do this too. They can visit these places, in person or online and learn their history…and there might be things in the kids’ own towns that can inspire stories for them.
“I’m really interested in time and how history affects the present day,” she continues, explaining her introduction of the 1908 timeline into her story. “When you’re writing for kids, their own personal history is very small—you don’t have a whole lot of room to play with. That’s why I [added] the previous generation, to see how it can impact the subsequent generations.” Blakemore’s conscious play of one generation off the next has a lot to do with the novel’s success. Generations’ worth of resentment and obligation fuel the relationship among Mallory, Ephraim and Will from the start, and the choices that predecessors Nora and Harry make have direct and surprising repercussions on the modern storyline.
One story that looms large over The Water Castle, given the Appledore family’s obsession with the Fountain of Youth, is Tuck Everlasting. Though it’s never mentioned in her book, it’s clear Blakemore had it on her mind. What choice would she make when given a chance at eternal life? “Oh, when I was a kid, there was no question.…Of course you were going to drink and be with [the Tucks]. As an adult, though, I don’t think that I would make the same choice.”
Unlike Natalie Babbitt’s classic, Blakemore’s story is open-ended, leaving room for readers to wonder exactly how much truth there is to the legend of the healing waters of Crystal Springs. She’s happy to think of kids, particularly the boys in her reading group, arguing about what really happens. “I left clues either way in the text. Even though I’m the author, and I definitely have an opinion, I don’t think I’m necessarily right,” Blakemore acknowledges. “I think that kids need to be allowed to read and to think and to interpret for themselves. Literature isn’t a right-or-wrong kind of thing, and the sooner they recognize that, the better.”
Vicky Smith is the children’s and teen editor at Kirkus Reviews.