By Ekta R. Garg
October 24, 2018
Genre: Middle grade fantasy
Release date: August 28, 2018
Rated: Borrowing on Bookmark it! / 3.5 stars
Twin brothers make an arrangement with an enemy in order to break a much bigger pact: the one that has kept their family apart since they were born. Along the way they’ll have to solve a murder and battle against the fantastical elements that keep their small town captive. One thing is clear to the boys: embarking on this adventure means their lives will never be the same. Author K.E. Ormsbee sets her latest middle grade novel in the folds of the Tennessee hills in the mostly entertaining book The House in Poplar Wood.
Everyone knows the Vickery family in the small town of Boone Ridge, Tennessee. Judith, resident psychiatrist, offers an objective, sympathetic ear to the town’s troubled residents. She also works as an apprentice to the Shade known as Memory. It is Judith’s job to assist Memory as she extracts those remembrances people either want to store for safekeeping or forget forever.
Vince, some say, is the greatest healer in the entire state. He’s the town doctor, but he’s also apprentice to Death. He does Death’s bidding, assisting in relieving people’s pain or easing them into the end of their existence. Vince doesn’t get a say in who lives or dies. He simply does Death’s bidding.
Their sons, Felix and Lee, live with them but apart from one another. Felix has never met their mother. Lee has never met their father. More than 13 years ago, in a moment of desperation when the boys’ lives hung in the balance, their parents made the Agreement with Death and Memory. They may share the same house, but they’re all physically incapable of crossing the boundary to the opposite side.
Even living with an invisible boundary separating them, however, all the Vickeries can agree on one thing: their ongoing enmity with the Whipple family. As summoners, the Whipples have spent generations ruling Boone Ridge. They make deals with the Shades in exchange for the well-being of the townspeople.
It doesn’t make sense to Gretchen Whipple, then, when she eavesdrops on her father and hears a strange conversation regarding the recent mysterious death of Essie Hasting. In fact, to Gretchen it almost sounds like Essie’s death wasn’t an accident. What would her father have to do with Essie?
Gretchen’s determination to find the answer leads her to the Vickery twins. The three form an uneasy alliance, knowing full well they’ll have the full wrath of the Shades, not to mention their parents, on them if anyone finds out. But as the three search for information, it becomes more clear that matters regarding the Shades and the balance of power have gone awry in Boone Ridge. It’s possible, in fact, that Gretchen, Felix, and Lee are the only ones who can save the town and themselves.
Author K.E. Ormsbee will charm readers with the overall premise of her novel. Ormsbee gives a fresh twist on the idea of lifelong servitude handed down from one generation to the next. The fact that Death, Memory, and Passion aren’t all-encompassing beings—the twins and Gretchen often mention other Shades with the same roles in other towns—personalizes these intangible concepts.
Ormsbee’s prose sparkles in places. She describes the burial of Essie Hasting as such: “Two men with shovels were piling dirt into the six-foot hole—a careless motion, like how Gretchen’s father scooped sugar into his coffee.” In another place, she likens Felix’s growing restlessness with the Agreement to a sphere in which he’s trapped. She writes, “Now Felix felt himself expanding, a great balloon growing larger and larger, pressing at the edges of his small sphere’s glass confines. He was not sure he’d fit inside much longer.”
Poetic prose can’t quite cover some of the book’s problems, however. While it’s clear from the start that Gretchen’s mother has long since died, no mention is made of how long ago, from what, or even what kind of relationship Gretchen had with her. Also, while Ormsbee shares several details and scenes of Felix’s relationship with Vince, Judith Vickery makes a cursory appearance throughout the story. Several other details about the way the Shades operate and interact also go unexplained, which may distract readers to asking questions and pull them out of the story.
Plot problems aside, readers will most likely enjoy the story, and I believe The House in Poplar Wood Borders on Bookmarking it.