CM . . .
. Volume XXII Number 2. . . .September 11, 2015
The ship being referenced in the excerpt above is the R. M. S. Scythia, and as Flavia stands on its deck, happily “blessed with a natural immunity to the tossing seas” (p. 6), she considers how she might use her precocious knowledge of chemistry to dispatch her odious chaperone, Ryerson Rainsmith, chair of the board of governors at Miss Bodycote’s. Dr. Rainsmith and his wife, Dorsey (a woman for whom Flavia developed contempt-at-first-sight), are returning from a summer in England and are accompanying Flavia, first on the trans-Atlantic journey, then on the 500 mile train journey from Quebec to Toronto, before dropping her off at Miss Bodycote’s. The school, a former convent, is “a vast, echoing mausoleum” which “smelled like a piano warehouse: wood, varnish, and an acrid metallic tang that suggested tight strings and old lemons.” (p. 27) It’s a forbidding place, and so is its headmistress, Miss Fawlthorne. She’s neither warm nor welcoming, and, after a rather odd interrogation as to the contents of Flavia’s luggage, our heroine is left to spend her first night in her new dorm.
Even in the best of circumstances, finding oneself in a dark, unheated room and sleeping on a lumpy bed is unpleasant, and before the night is over, Flavia awakens to find herself being pummelled about the head and shoulders by an oddly-shaped girl named Patricia Collingwood (although, in the best boarding school tradition, students refer to each other by surname only). Collingwood’s intended victim was someone named Pinkham, and, as she explains her motive for the attack, she provides even more reason to fear Miss Fawlthorne: “People disappear” . . . “Poof! Just like that. Without a trace.” (p. 32) Noticing both lights on and the sound of conversation (in defiance of school rules), Miss Fawlthorne knocks on the door of Flavia’s room, and, in a desperate attempt to escape certain punishment, Collingwood scrambles into the fireplace, “somehow clawing her way upward.” (p. 35) But, gravity is stronger than Collingwood’s grip, and, as Flavia attempts to talk her way out of the situation, Collingwood, P. A. drops from the hearth, along with something else: “what appeared at first to be a charred log was still rolling slowly toward us, unfurling as it came . . . the sooty and discolored Union Jack in which it was wrapped. . . . As the bundle rolled, the skull became detached tumbled to a stop . . . At the core of the bundle was a blackened and dessicated human body, . . . it had been dead for some time. Quite some time.” (p. 38)
All Flavia de Luce mysteries begin with a death, and, for Flavia, the appearance of a corpse is cause for excitement, rather than fear. It’s also the opportunity for her to do what she does best: solve the crime of murder. However, for the time being, she has to put crime-solving aside and grapple with her identity. It seems as if everyone at the school knows that she is Harriet’s daughter, but Flavia does not “want to be Harriet. [She] wanted to be [herself].” (p. 48) It will take her some time to forge that identity. Her first sight of her mother’s photograph in the school’s Old Girl’s Gallery re-awakens the pain of loss and, before too long, Flavia realizes just how much she misses the rest of her family (including her sisters with whom she was in constant conflict), Buckshaw (in all of its decrepitude), her beloved bicycle (Gladys), the family’s faithful retainer, Dogger (who, despite their age difference, is probably her truest and best friend), and, of course, her well-equipped laboratory in the east wing of her home. As she struggles with the culture shock of a country where English is a somewhat different language, where “Canadian currency was a veiled mystery” (p. 61), Flavia is overwhelmed with homesickness. In the previous Flavia novels, readers never saw her in a classroom, or, for that matter, associating much with others of her own age. Despite her notoriety as Harriet’s daughter, at Miss Bodycote’s, she is still the “new girl” and subject to all that comes with “new girl” status.
On her first day in a classroom, Flavia finds herself the centre of everyone’s attention: “The girls all stared at me openly and I made a point of staring just as openly back. I was as curious about them as they were about me.” (p. 69) They are definitely curious about Harriet’s daughter, and, although sisterhood has always been a fractious experience for Flavia, she is invited to Little Commons where a select group of girls gathers for gossip, cigarettes, and sessions with the Ouija board. Flavia sees that the Ouija board session is an opportunity to push (literally) her personal investigation into the case of the body in the chimney. As her time at the Academy continues, the case becomes curiouser and curiouser. However, Flavia’s not quite as curious about the content of classroom instruction at Miss B’s.
The teaching staff at Miss Bodycote’s are an interesting collection of women. The French instructor makes Flavia glad that her ancestors left France for England, Miss Puddicombe’s gym class is an exercise in both physical and sartorial humiliation (Flavia states that “we were made to dress in plimsolls and bloomers that would have been laughed off the beach even in Victorian Blackpool” (p. 105), and then, there is the truly terrifying science mistress, Miss Moate, who is deformed, confined to a wheelchair, and more than mildly sinister. Only two teachers treat Flavia with the respect that she deserves. One is Headmistress Fawlthorne, who makes Flavia aware that she has a special, personal stake in Flavia’s “training” at Miss Bodycote’s, and the other is Mildred Bannerman, acquitted murderess and Flavia’s tutor and mentor in advanced chemistry. Mildred may have been a murderess, but she is a sweet, charming, Audrey Hepburn look-alike; to Flavia, she’s “a kindred spirit” (p. 155), who shares a mutual interest in decay and putrefaction.
Both Fawlthorne and Bannerman are engaged in some mysterious work of their own, the details of which cannot be spoken openly. Fawlthorne warns Flavia that “no girl may give out any information whatsoever about any other girl, past or present” (p. 148) and, in the chemistry lab, Mrs. Bannerman cautions Flavia that “your notebooks are never to leave this room. They will be kept here under lock and key, but you may add to them or consult them at any time.” (p. 154) Even more mysterious is the field trip to Lake Ontario on which 13 of Bodycote’s boarders, including Flavia, are taken. For Flavia, it’s an opportunity to ask other girls some questions (despite Fawlthorne’s warning) which might help to solve the case which has engaged her since her first night at the school. It’s not easy to conduct an investigation when asking questions is a taboo, but Flavia soldiers on, feigning ignorance whenever convenient, until one of the other boarders, a “gnomish” girl named Gremly tells Flavia, “I can tell you’re a person who enjoys her pheasant sandwiches.” (p. 179) Yes, “pheasant sandwiches” - the code words used as a warning of danger to members of the super-secret Nide. And this is followed up with yet another warning: “trust no one.” (p. 186)
Of all of the Flavia books to date, I found this one to be the most complex and, in some ways, the most demanding to read. It’s definitely a book for a capable female reader in upper middle school or early high school years and beyond. Life in this all-girl environment just won’t interest male readers. Because of Flavia’s move to Miss Bodycote’s, the school and its instructors present an entirely new cast of characters, and nearly every day, it seems that Flavia is faced with yet another discovery of just how different the New World is from Buckshaw and Bishop’s Lacey. Just as Flavia experienced continual bouts of homesickness, as a reader, I found myself missing her annoying sisters, the patient and faithful Dogger, Mrs. Mullet’s culinary disasters, Flavia’s joyous “yaroo’s” as she sped along country lanes on her trusty bicycle, and all the other characters who populated her little village. Flavia fans who are up-to-date with her story will enjoy As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust because they want to know how her new life in Canada has progressed. Unlike many of the other Flavia de Luce mysteries, I think that this one can be read as a “stand alone”, simply because this is such a new chapter in her life. While she may not have mastered Canadian English, Flavia is as sharp as ever. Just as the previous Flavia novels gives a strong sense of post-war Britain in the 1950’s, this book offers up details that are part of Canadian life at that time: people drink Orange Crush, smoke Sweet Caporals (just like my late dad, until he gave up smoking), and listen to Mantovani.
Although she’s just turned 12, Flavia is extraordinarily intelligent, and, in this book, away from home, she has more opportunity to reflect on her life’s experience to date. Sometimes, it’s hard to believe that she is only 12; although the youngest of her three siblings, she’s wise and introspective beyond her years. But, that was why she was sent off to Miss Bodycote’s. Undoubtedly, Alan Bradley has a sequel in the works, and I, along with other Flavia fans, will look forward to it.
Joanne Peters, a retired teacher-librarian, lives in Winnipeg, MB.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.