Kate Milford is one of my favorite authors, and I don't think her books get the attention and love they so deserve. She writes unique stories with such care and attention to detail. Greenglass House is different from her previous two novels in setting and plot, but no less excellent in its execution, unique voice, and brilliant storytelling.
It's wintertime at Greenglass House. The creaky smuggler's inn is always quiet during this season, and twelve-year-old Milo, the innkeepers' adopted son, plans to spend his holidays relaxing. But on the first icy night of vacation, out of nowhere, the guest bell rings. Then rings again. And again. Soon Milo's home is bursting with odd, secretive guests, each one bearing a strange story that is somehow connected to the rambling old house. As objects go missing and tempers flare, Milo and Meddy, the cook's daughter, must decipher clues and untangle the web of deepening mysteries to discover the truth about Greenglass House-and themselves.
Greenglass House has so many elements I love: an old house that needs exploring, guests trapped in an Inn with a mystery happening, intrepid children who embrace their imaginations and save the day. And it's Christmas. What more could you ask for? I can not stress enough how much this book seems just tailor made for me. Every single aspect of it is one that I love and Milford's writing is so clever here. The book has a rather nostalgic feel to it, but not in an old tired way, rather the same way the Penderwick books feel nostalgic to adult readers but kids still love them. I think Greenglass House will have a similar effect on both groups of readers. Milford builds her mystery slowly. In the tradition of all the great mystery writers she introduces each player one at a time giving the reader a glimpse at who they are and setting them in their places on the chess board of her story. The house itself even feels like a character as Milo shows each guest to the room they will occupying as they are all snowed in the week before Christmas. Not everyone is who they claim to be, none of them are honest about why they are there, and one of them is actually dangerous. All are connected through the house in some way and it is the house that has brought them all together. When Milo finds a strange map and then it is taken from him, he and Meddy team up to try and uncover the mysteries which are numerous and are leading them to uncovering buried truths of the past. This requires exploring the house, questioning the guests, and in a stroke of brilliance on Milo's part, having them each tell a story to entertain the others at night as they are trapped by the snow. These stories help Milo and Meddie piece together the mystery and reveal fascinating details about everyone's past. I enjoyed how this showed the interconnectedness of everyone and forged a community amongst the guest that would never have come about without it. The stories in themselves are fun too.
Milo is the central character and,while all the characters are drawn well, he is the one that connects everyone and pulls everything together. He is a typical kid looking forward to a few days of peace to begin his winter vacation. The Inn doesn't normally have guests before Christmas. He even does all of his homework on the first afternoon so it will be out of the way. When the guests begin to arrive, he is less than pleased. While he does what his parents require of him, it is with enough reluctance and temper that it strikes the perfect chord for a child his age. Milo is of Chinese descent and is adopted. This is another thing about his character that is really well done. He loves his parents, but he wonders about his birth parents too. He sometimes goes as fas as imagining he was still with his birth parents in a family that looks like him. At other times he even imagines what his life would be like if someone else had adopted him. He feels so conflicted and guilty about these fantasies. I really loved how Milford used this to make him relatable and also into something more than a cliche' of a character. Milo's struggles with adoption are real but not dramatic or a huge issue. In order to solve the mystery Milo and Meddy adopt role-playing characters and this too was a lot of fun. Milo is skeptical at first but soon embraces the idea that he can imagine himself to be whoever he wants with the skills necessary to do what must be done. He is surprised to find he is actually able to take on his character so well. Meddy is more shy and withdrawn, always hiding from the other occupants and only talking to Milo. She is his silent shadow and her role is to observe and collect information, which she does very well. They are a great team and wonderful foils for each other as they work to uncover the mystery.
Milford has combined the best elements of mystery, history, folklore, and reality to weave a wonderful tale that is both thoughtful and adventurous. The action is not page-turning exciting, but the way Milford writes kept me hooked and wondering what would happen next. The language and imagery is so well done, and this book would make a great read aloud, particularly during the month leading up to Christmas. I plan on rereading it myself during that time. Greenglass House has shades of both Agatha Christie and Charles Dickens, but is wholly its own story and told in such a way that it will be enjoyed by kids and adults alike.
I read an ARC received from the publisher, Clarion Books, at ALA Midwinter. Greenglass House is for sale on August 26.