________________ CM . . . . Volume XIII Number 3 . . . . September 29, 2006


Prisoners Under Glass.

R. Patrick.
Prince George, BC: Scroll Press, 2005.
262 pp., pbk., $20.95.
ISBN 0-9735422-2-5.

Grades 5-10 / Ages 10-15.

Review by Ruth Latta.

**** /4


[Rachel] peered through her fingers, looking for Stryker, but all she saw was the blue of sea and sky around them. They were the same amazing shade of electric blue, making it impossible to tell where the horizon was... A sudden horrible thought occurred to her. What if the sea witches had caught up with them while they were asleep, poured shrinking potion all over them and dropped them into a glass globe? Wouldn't this be what they would see? The glares of the sun - or a work-light overhead? Blue all around. An ocean that was terribly, terribly quiet. Unnaturally quiet, as if holding its breath.

Bad things happen in threes, 10-year-old Rachel Windover believes, and, on a trip to Venice with her parents, she has an ominous sensation that all is not right: lost luggage, a rat in her hotel room, now an approaching storm while she and her parents head for the Grand Canal in a gondola! As her parents bill and coo, a big wave sweeps Rachel into the canal.

     Worse is to come. In a gift shop called "Maria's Treasures," full of wonderful water globes, (snow globes), like crystal balls, with miniature figures inside, the Windovers meet the raven-haired, porcelain-skinned Lilah Benici. She charms Rachel's father, subtly humiliates Rachel's mother, and strikes Rachel as having "the air of a beautiful undertaker."

     Thus author Ruthven Patrick, a Canadian-born San Franciscan, sets the tone of Prisoners Under Glass. Ms Patrick, who studied mythology in English Literature at the University of Toronto, makes good use of time-honoured symbols, legends, fairy tales and primal emotions. After leaving the gift shop, the Windovers go to the Bridge of Sighs where Rachel faints. She awakens in her hotel room. The police are looking for her mother. She went missing in the crowd and cannot be found.

     Three years later, back in San Francisco, Rachel feels that everyone but she has forgotten her mother. Her dad, who imports and sells gifts and collectibles, goes on a buying trip to Venice and brings back Lilah as a bride. "Life will be different now," he reassures Rachel. Lilah mutters, “You have no idea.”

     "Lilah" is short for "Delilah," Samson's temptress in the Bible. The wicked stepmother has cast a spell over Rachel's father while undermining Rachel's self-esteem. Then, after another buying trip to Venice, Mr. Windover brings back a palm-sized water globe for his daughter. The "snow" is in the form of tiny gulls which the miniature man inside appears to be feeding. Lilah breaks it, Rachel cleans up the glass (like Cinderella), and the tiny figure from the snow globe turns out to be alive. It no longer resembles her father but looks more like a gondolier. (The gondolier, part of the Tarot deck of cards, symbolizes Venice and love, but also death, as in Thomas Mann's Death in Venice.)

     Guiseppe, the gondolier, says he was shrunk by a sea-witch, Maria, who runs a shop in Venice. Lilah and her sinister mother and daughter steal people "from the street, from crowds, parties, hotels and restaurants," shrink them and puts them under glass. At this point, Rachel resolves to go on a "hero's journey," a quest to find her mother and bring her home.

     Sea-witches occur in myth and legend. Circe, in The Odyssey, turned men into pigs. The Gorgons, most notably Medusa, had long hair that turned into serpents, and in one scene, Lilah's hair does just that.

     According to an article at www.themystica.com, which draws on Rosemary Ellen Guiley's The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft, (NY, Facts on File, 1989) sea witches control the wind and cause storms. There is no mention of them shrinking people. Legend has it that sea witches caused the storm that helped Sir Francis Drake defeat the Spanish Armada in 1588.

     But Lilah in Prisoners Under Glass has flashier, more glamorous abilities than the traditional sea witches. Her '67 red Corvette is amphibious and aerodynamic. Her "familiar," Stryker, is a raven the size of a cat. Her reason for shrinking people and capturing them in water globes is unconvincing -- it is to please her mother who wants her water globes famous worldwide.

     Rachel seeks help and finds it from several unlikely sources. She, her school friends, Sam and Justine, and Captain Eli and his dog, Apollo, set out on the captain's raft-like "all service vehicle" on an underground river to find the cavern of sea witches, known as Nexxus. Captain Eli, with his seafaring past, knows just how to get there. He leads the little band down his basement stairs, and there is the underground river - just like my basement during spring thaw in 2003!

     Vivid, detailed description, well-rounded characters, and a fast pace make this novel outstanding in its genre. A few minor problems jarred, though. First, I wish the author had stuck to Rachel's point of view throughout instead of switching Lilah's in a couple of places. Readers young and old alike get a thrill out of the growing realization that Lilah is malevolent - no need to spell it out.

     Secondly, the subterranean voyage involved so much action/adventure that I felt jaded, though young readers probably wouldn't. In a few places, too, the novel is marred by self-mockery. In one scene, Lilah engages in a weird dance with wolverines, one which Rachel observes and reports to Sam. He takes her seriously but says mockingly, "Lilah and the Dance of the Wolverines. It's got kind of a ring to it, don't you think?" Is this an acknowledgment that the magic goes over the top?

     There is a hint of a deeper meaning - that lack of self-confidence (which plagues both Rachel and her mother) makes you vulnerable to predators, and that by finding friends and mentors, you can overcome those who would diminish you. The actual prize that Rachel brings back from her quest is her mother, but the other gift is self-esteem.

     Prisoners Under Glass lingered on in my mind after I read it. From now on, in gift shops, I'll peer closely at those little people in the snow globes, to see if they're crying for help.

Highly Recommended.

Ruth Latta of Ottawa, ON, is a teacher/writer/editor.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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