I came to this book reluctantly. When I was working in a middle school library a few years ago, Schlitz’s book Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! was awarded the Newbery Medal, and trying to bring young readers to that book was a particularly hard struggle. (It didn’t hurt that students at my middle school weren’t studying Medieval history, so there was no natural curriculum tie-in.)
I would have no problem getting kids to pick up Splendors and Glooms, Schlitz’s most recent book—a novel about childhood, puppets, magic, powerlessness, friendship, and more. Schlitz’s background research on Victorian era London is evident from the beginning. She paints a backdrop of a fog-choked city filled with workhouses for the poor and fanciful puppet theaters to entertain the rich.
Lizzie Rose and Parsefall, two penniless orphans, work for the puppet master Grisini. Schlitz focuses first on Grisini’s wonderful ability to bring puppets to life on stage, so that readers only gradually become aware of the magic he practices—and the darkness of his heart. In a startlingly awful moment, Grisini enchants Clara, a wealthy young girl, turning her into a puppet on strings.
Parsefall is not immediately aware of the soul trapped inside, so he naturally plays with the puppet Clara. Somehow the strings act as a magical conduit of thought and emotion, bringing the two characters together. “When he played upon her strings,” writes Schlitz, “Clara glimpsed the splendors and glooms that haunted his mind.”
This kind of writing is haunting...and a wonderful treat. So many times novelists become carried away with description, slowing action down to a crawl. But Schlitz peppers even her descriptive passages with active verbs, so the story flies along like the wind: “It was a boisterous wind that drove the clouds across the blue sky and scattered confetti on the cobblestones.”
While many books are celebrated for having powerful first lines, I loved the last line in Splendors and Glooms best of all. Lizzie Rose, Clara, and Parsefall are attending a funeral which has gone on much too long. They can’t wait to leave and get back to the business of living:
“They were waiting, all three of them, for the moment when the could be alone again and free to laugh together.”
The only small complaint is that the story did, after all, have to end. I wanted it to go on and on.