Author and critic Dale Peck is not exactly the type of person you might expect to be writing children’s books. Whether you think about him as a “gay writer” or as a “hatchet man” literary critic, his career doesn’t exactly scream “young adult fantasy adventure.” So when I noticed just such a book out from Mr. Peck, I felt it was worth a read.
The Drift House is the first in a fantasy adventure series for young adults. The story centers around three siblings – Susan, Charles, and Murray Oakenfield – who are sent off to stay with an eccentric uncle in Canada in the aftermath of September 11 (their family lives in New York City). Uncle Farley’s house – as the title implies – is far from ordinary and after a violent rain storm the children find themselves floating helplessly out to sea.
The resulting story involves “The Sea of Time,” mermaids, a giant whale, a multi-lingual parrot, time pirates, a magical dumbwaiter, and all sorts of adventure for the Oakenfield children. Interestingly, the book’s website indicates that Peck was inspired – in part – by C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series:
Shortly after “the towers came down” Dale visited a friend on Cape Cod who dreamt that the ship builder’s home he lived in had floated out to sea.
“The image captivated me, and I immediately sketched some notes. I took my cue from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobeâ€”another children’s book set against the backdrop of war: the four children are sent out of London during the Blitz to stay with a mysterious, slightly eccentric professor,” explains Dale. “The children in the Narnia books leave their house behind, of course. Mine get to take theirs with them.”
And Drift House does share similarities with the Narnia series: the interaction of the siblings; the backdrop of war; the magical nature of the worlds they find; etc. But where Narnia’s allegorical backdrop is religious (particularly The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) the meta-physical backdrop to the Drift House is more philosophical in nature.
The plot/adventure is interesting and entertaining, if a little slow at times. Basically the kids try to figure out their mysterious uncle, his odd house, and why they are floating adrift in a different world. At the same time they are trying to get along and work together to solve their predicament despite their young age and the normal sibling conflicts. Susan, as the oldest, is called upon to be the leader and finds out she can fill that role despite her doubts and insecurities. Charles is the smart science type but struggles with jealousy and rivalry with his sister. In the end he too shows his courage and makes important contributions. The youngest child Murray plays a unique role and one that is hard to describe without giving too much away, but he comes away a different child after an encounter with the dumbwaiter and a glass of water.
Peck does a good job moving the story along and includes a couple of twists and turns in the plot. Like most young adult fare, it can seem a little slow or bland at times, and not everything is as flushed out as one might want, but the unique setting and plot help to keep the reader interested. Peck’s narrator also keeps the tone light and humorous with his occasional interjections. There is even a light hearted glossary in the back.
What might be called the meta-physical underpinnings of the story are a little more difficult to follow. I won’t try to explain it to you, but it involves the world’s collective imagination – and the ever growing population behind it – speeding up the “temporal flow.” It is a sort of universal “Feiler Faster Principle” but not limited to politics. This idea bogs down a few pages near the end of the book, but it doesn’t really affect the rest of the story. I am not sure if it will play a larger role in future volumes in the series.
I have not read any of Mr. Peck’s previous work with the exception of a few review essays, but I am confident that this book is nothing like any of his other books. As a result, curiosity alone might cause a few literary types to check out this young adult adventure. Without much knowledge of Peck or his writing, I found Drift House to be mildly interesting and entertaining. It didn’t knock my socks off or anything, but it was unique and well written enough to hold my attention and keep me entertained. I liked it enough that I will check out the next work in the series to see where Peck goes with his ideas and how the children develop.
If you have young readers with a philosophical bent or who enjoy unique adventures, this might make a nice Christmas gift. Dale peck fans will also want to check out the new career path for the former hatchet man.