I saw this book recommended somewhere or other and thought the formatting looked quite intriguing. This story follows two timelines. Mary’s story is set in 1982, while Ella’s is set in the present (2017). Mary’s story is told through her diary entries, while Ella’s story is told entirely through illustrations. This method worked very well, and also made the book read quite quickly. I loved the way that the sections were divided by two solid black pages each time. All the illustrations are in grayscale as well, which adds to the atmosphere of the story.
The two tales are connected because Mary is living in a children’s home in an old, large house called Thornhill. Her diary entries talk about how the home is going to be closed and she isn’t sure what is going to happen to her. In the meantime, she is suffering a great deal because of a terrible bully in her life. In 2017, Ella moves into a house whose back yard backs up to Thornhill, now abandoned. Ella sees strange goings-on in the abandoned house and starts to explore what is happening. Ella’s mother is not in the picture (presumably dead), and her father is buried in his work, leaving Ella alone a great deal of the time.
From the beginning I realized that this was supposed to be a sort of creepy/horror book, but it’s also a children’s book. To that end, I felt like this book’s ending crossed a line that shouldn’t have been crossed. More details concerning the ending (so, big spoiler) below.
While I found this book completely gripping while I was reading it, and was anxious to see what was going to happen next to both girls. But the ending just ruined this book for me, so I ended up only going 2/5 and not particularly recommending it. I loved the formatting, but just couldn’t get behind the story’s message.
In Mary’s story, she is being tormented mercilessly by a horrible girl only ever referred to by female pronouns (e.g. she and her), but never by name. Because Thornhill is closing, the girls in the home are being sent on to other homes as places open up for them. Mary is very isolated and spends most of her time in her top-story bedroom, where she enjoys making puppets and reading. The adults in Mary’s life who are supposed to be looking out for her aren’t. In Mary’s mind, it’s because she is so personable that all the adults automatically assume that she must be perfect/incapable of being mean. Mary is quiet (and, let’s be frank, sullen). Despite the fact that Mary is the one telling her story, and she is the one suffering, I honestly couldn’t stand her. Plus, I spent most of the time being aggravated with all the adults in her life, because none of them seemed to realize that this girl obviously is mentally unstable.
In the end, Mary sets up a way to kill her tormentor. But she convinces Mary that she was only lonely and confused as well, and even jealous of Mary’s self-contained and apparently contented existence. Mary releases her, and she immediately mocks Mary for believing her, because obviously no one would ever be jealous of Mary. Then she takes off, and Mary kills herself.
Yup, you read that right. She writes one more entry in her diary about how hopeless her life is and how she has no where to go, so she’s just going to make sure she can stay at Thornhill forever.
So that already seemed like a really terrible message to put in a children’s book – sometimes the bullies are right, and the only way out is just to end it all, kids! What!?
Meanwhile, in Ella’s timeline, she’s super sad and lonely because her dad is never around (we see notes from him saying things like, “Have to work late – love you”, etc.). She keeps seeing glimpses of Mary, who is a ghost now (as we find out in the end), and also starts finding broken puppets that apparently ghost-Mary is leaving for her. Eventually, Ella finds Mary’s diary. She still believes Mary is a live person (and as the reader, I was still not 100% sure, either, like maybe Mary has just been illegally living in Thornhill??) and writes a note for her saying that they can be friends, etc. When Ella goes to try and find Mary, we see a picture of them meeting in Mary’s top-story window. Meanwhile, a huge storm has blown up and lightning strikes Thornhill and catches it on fire. And… Ella dies, too!
And now – isn’t this sweet? – they aren’t lonely any more! They get to be ghost-friends together! Aww. That’s so touching!
I mean what the h-e-double-hockey-sticks is that all about?! What a stupid ending! And apparently no thought for Ella’s dad who, yes, isn’t doing that great of a job right now, but still – loses his wife and his daughter? That seems harsh.
And the creepiest part is the very ending shows a new kid moving into Ella’s old room, just like we saw Ella moving into the room in the beginning. And the kid looks out the window and sees two girls standing together in the yard at Thornhill, just like Ella saw Mary. So… are they going to keep luring kids to their deaths?? It was weird.
So yes, this book had a lot going for it and it definitely sucked me in, but I really didn’t like the message that seemed (to me) to come through really clearly – that sometimes life really is just too hard, so you should just give up. Especially in this day and age where everyone seems so concerned about bullies, and where kids really are killing themselves because of things people say and do to them – this just seemed like an incredibly negative and harmful message to put in a children’s book.
Has anyone else read this? I would love to hear some other thoughts on this story!!