'Peculiar Children' have fantastic adventure

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 1, 2011

“Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,” by Ransom Riggs. Quirk Books, Philadelphia. 2011. 352 pp. $17.99.
By Deirdre Parker Smith
SALISBURY —Of course, the cover drew me in first, with it’s black-and-white photo of a levitating girl, and then the title, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.”
Flipping through the pages sold me. Included are numerous vintage photos of children, like the one on the front, in peculiar circumstances or odd costumes or spooky settings.
Some of them are obviously altered — but probably at the time they were taken — others just a product of the time they were taken.
Author Ransom Riggs uses these photos to tell an amazing story of a place where time stopped — in the nick of time.
Rigg’s hero is Jacob, who adores his grandfather, and the odd stories he tells that are accompanied by the weird photos.
Grandpa Portman speaks of killing monsters and always being on the lookout for more. He has a stockpile of guns he says he uses when he’s hunting, and he hunts a lot.
Jacob figures the monsters are the Nazis his grandfather faced in World War II, the people who killed his family and forced him into hiding.
Grandpa Portman tells Jacob about the children’s home he’s sent to as the world heats up for war. He’s sent to an old house on an island in Wales, where Miss Peregrine rules the roost of children from all over — peculiar children, the ones in the photos.
Jacob realizes when he’s older the stories of the strange children and their odd abilities are just that. Just stories. He’s sort of disappointed in his grandfather.
But right there in chapter one, things start to turn bad — Jacob’s grandfather goes missing, and 16-year-old Jacob finds him, horribly slashed, struggling to tell him something: “Go the island, Yakob. It’s not safe here.”
Jacob doesn’t understand what his grandfather is talking about.
Riggs builds Jacob as a troubled young man, with few friends and a great many worries. Jacob’s father is directionless and unmotivated; his mother is wealthy and largely absent from the story.
The only person Jacob really connects with is Grandpa Portman (there’s meaning hidden in that name) and that doesn’t sit well with his father, who thinks the old man is slightly crazy and a neglectful parent.
Even when the man dies a gruesome death, Jacob’s father seems unfazed.
Jacob, haunted by horrible nightmares about his grandfather and what he thinks he saw at the scene, is talked into seeing a psychiatrist, Dr. Golan, who picks his brain apart, piece by piece. Jacob tells Golan his grandfather’s incredible tales of levitating girls and invisible boys.
The thing is, Golan doesn’t think any of it is crazy.
When Jacob finds a letter from Miss Peregrine in his grandfather’s things, he decides there’s no way to answer his questions or understand his grandfather’s last words without going to the island where the children’s home was to see if any of these incredible, peculiar people are still alive.
When he is able to go — his father, an amateur ornithologist discovers there’s rare birds on the island — he is quickly disappointed when he finds the house nothing more than a bombed out shell.
The townspeople of Cairnholm tell him the place was blown apart on Sept. 3, 1940, by Allied bombs.
Jacob, downhearted, keeps going back to the spot, though, and picks through the rubble to see if there are any clues to what his grandfather has told him.
When he finds more photos in an old trunk, he’s totally hooked — just like the reader.
What at first seemed a depressing journey takes off, in appropriate fashion, with a trip through a bog and the sight of a girl who calls Jacob by his grandfather’s name.
The surprises are too good to give away, but this turns into one fast-paced, time traveling, monster chasing, bombs bursting adventure.
Throw in plenty of real-world danger and you have a story sure to please adults and teens.
The book doesn’t get assigned to a genre, other than novel, although it’s cover and title suggest this might be something for children.
Illustrated with the strange photos, it is a popular new form of a book — more than words and less than a graphic novel.
The thing that makes the incredible photos even more so is they are actual period photos gleaned from collectors of such things by the author. Riggs has done short films, giving him an eye for striking visuals. He also has respect for people trying to preserve the past.
Riggs writes clearly, using simple language to create a world of complicated, fantastical things. Some of his words are anchored in ancient vocabulary, like wight, an undead creature who feeds on living flesh, a term familiar in the British isles.
The book’s whirlwind ending cries out for a what-happens-next sequel.
“Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” will entertain you in the summer, or in the deep, dark of night …