There is nothing more comforting to read than a classic middle grade novel. After the death of my family cat (RIP dear Cocoa, almost 20), I was in need of some serious comfort reading. Something about the setting and situation of The Girl From Felony Bay reminded me of The Rescuers, a wonderful but often overlooked Disney classic loosely based on a fantastic children’s novel by Margery Sharpe. Minus the talking mice, of course.
Abbey knows her beloved father did not steal an old woman’s jewels. But since he is in a coma after a mysterious fall, he can’t exactly defend himself. Now Abbey lives with her mean Uncle Charlie and his equally sour wife, Ruth. It is clear she is not wanted, let alone loved. So Abbey seeks solace on the grounds of her old home, a sprawling plantation, looking after the horses. Here she meets the daughter of the new owners, Bee, who despite being friendly and up for almost anything, is clearly hiding a sad secret of her own. The two girls team up to prove that Abbey’s father is innocent, uncovering a number of surprises along the way.
J.E. Thompson’s style seems effortless. Clear, rich and effective storytelling but with enough character flavour and detail to make the book memorable. He has crafted the perfect setting for a middle grade novel, a sprawling estate full of secret paths, gators, and possible hidden treasure. Without leaving the property, Abbey has enough to keep her engaged and busy all summer. With the exceptions of a few scenes, most of the action takes place in and around the plantation, which is becoming more rare in children’s books. A writer must be confident and extremely accomplished at world building to rely on one basic set.
I loved the friendship between Bee and Abbey, which is considerate and helps both girls heal from their past tragedies. Bee’s Grandmother belongs to the middle grade trope of a wise old woman who seems stern but has a heart of gold and also happens to cook up delicious and wholesome food. Uncle Charlie is fairly un-redeemable (he has little to no qualms about murdering children), but I like how Thompson doesn’t feel the need to go too much into his backstory to explain his behaviour. He is a true villain- sometimes I think we need to let villains be villains.
I also loved the inclusion of the plantation’s history and how Thompson handles the delicate issues of race, slavery, and ownership. Like Abbey, Bee’s last name is also Force, which suggests that her ancestors were one slaves of Abbey’s ancestors and took on their name when they were freed. Although this novel is not about race, history and racism pop up from time to time in a way that feels natural and is well-handled.
This book has the feel of a classic. I could read it now, ten years ago or ten years from now and it would not feel dated. A great summer read for fans of traditional mysteries or novels with a southern setting.
The Girl From Felony Bay will be available in hard cover from HarperCollins Canada on April 30th.