Reynard “Rennie” Muldoon is. He’s one of those kids who does the crossword in ink, solves algebra problems in his head and tends to have few friends his own age. Well, the other kids think he’s strange. And he’s an orphan, to boot. So it’s good that he has a talent for Puzzles. A talent that could change his life.
Rennie Muldoon is the central character in The Mysterious Benedict Society, one of those stories, like Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate events or James and the Giant Peach, that belong in the “Plucky Orphan” genre. Once again, kind and decent children are thrown onto the dubious mercies of the world with tasks that would defeat most adults. Once again there’s a picturesque, almost Dickensian quality to the narrative. The plus in this book (besides its marvellous story) is what makes Rennie Muldoon important. The tale is chock-full of puzzles.
Rennie answers an ad for “Gifted Children looking for Special Opportunities” and is subjected to a series of tests that range from the usual time and speed math problems I never figured out to staged exams of his character and resourcefulness. By including the problems, the reader gets the fun of solving the puzzles as well as getting pulled into the story.
By the end of the day, he’s learned few children don’t meet the qualifications and that there’s more than one way to solve problems. While Rennie applies logic and reasoning to questions, Sticky Washington has an eidetic memory and can recall the answers he’s read. Kate Weatherall is braver than either boy and creates “outside the box” solutions to problems that would stump both of the boys. To this trio is added a fourth, Constance Contraire, a child as stubborn as she is smart. Instead of responding directly to a query, Constance challenges the authority of every examiner with rhyming, impertinent poems. It’s not as easy to like grumpy, impatient Constance but the trio respects her mind. And so does the mysterious Mr Benedict.
|The Author, not Mr Benedict.|
Orphans need a mentor to appreciate them and give them room to grow. Mr Benedict takes his place in a pantheon of loving, flawed mentors with Glenda the Good and the great Dumbledore. Like these, he can advise and worry about the children he sends into danger but he cannot rescue them from their ultimate moments of peril. Here, the children must rely on their own abilities or the friendships they’ve developed between each other. And here is where the talent for solving puzzles comes in very handy.
If you have a middle-grader handy (aged between 9-12) over the next few days, and you want a story to love and share, try The Mysterious Benedict Society for some read-aloud fun. Or you could read the book yourself if you really like solving puzzles.