Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children reads like two separate stories: one a semi-traditional coming of age story for a young, disaffected and wealthy boy in America, and the second a semi-traditional fantasy epic. The book jacket sets the novel up as a type of mystery — almost like a young adult version of Scorcese’s movie Shutter Island, with the implication that all is not as it seems. . .but everything still, somehow, belongs in our world. There is an implication of realness to the protagonist, Jacob, and his adventures for the first half of the novel. The second half, however, takes that reality, puts it inside a martini shaker, and goes to town. Which isn’t to say that the second half is bad: it’s engaging, and well-paced, and carries with it a breathless excitement. I am certain that to high school and middle school children reading the book, the greatness of Miss Peregrine is in the third and final act. I, however, found the first half to be the more compelling.
Perhaps it is best to begin with what the story is about: it’s about the stories that the protagonist, Jacob, is told by his grandfather: tales about an island, an orphanage, people by children with magical gifts and overseen by a stern by kindly headmistress. Later in the book, Jacob visits the island, intent on discovering for himself whether his grandfather’s story was true — and it is there, after a day on the island, that the story transitions to the second act, wherein Jacob meets solves his grandfather’s mystery.
The best part of the book is the integration of strange, altered, vintage photographs into the storyline. The photos both exist alongside the story and outside it at the same time, lending an otherworldly air to the story. They fit in beautifully with the first half — there’s always that question: is everything as it seems, or is there something more? In the second half, they serve merely as pictures — documents that follow the action of the story.
But enough. Back to the beginning, and why I find it so fascinating. The story begins by revolving around the relationship between Jacob and his grandfather. For some reason, the grandfather, idolized in Jacob’s eyes, has almost no bond with his own son, but instead prefers to regale his grandson with stories of his time on “the Island” and by explaining the origins behind a group of odd photographs that he has. When Jacob is younger he believes the stories wholeheartedly. As he grows older, he begins to question them.
Part of the strength of the novel is the fact that Jacob, though he recognizes at one point that the pictures must be doctored, faked somehow, never, ever loses faith in his grandfather’s integrity. Though the book at multiple times implies that the grandfather was alternately a liar, a philanderer, and a lout, Jacob never believes anything less than the best of the man. And, as Jacob is the narrator and the reader’s guide into the world of the novel, we, too, are carried along on this belief that the grandfather must be honest, good, and true.
Which leads me to look with some curiosity on the prevalence of grandparents in American contemporary literature. So many authors use the narrator’s grandparents to bring a sense of magic into a story, a sense of otherworldliness. Most, like Miss Peregrine’s, have grandparents who are immigrants to the new country. In Miss Peregrine, the grandfather not only allegedly lived on an island with magical children, but also was a Jew in Europe during the Holocaust, and fought in World War II. Compare this with the grandmother in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, who instills the novel with the idea of fuku, a kind of Dominican magic karma. Jeffrey Eugenides in Middlesex begins with the miraculous and unbelievable story of the protagonists grandparents escaping from a burning Greek City; though Amy Tan’s novels focus more on the relationships between mothers and daughters, it is always the grandmother who introduces topics of Chinese myth into the novels.
And then I wonder: is it the role of grandparents, themselves, that is used to introduce mystery and magic into modern day American tales, or is it simply the immigrant tale itself? There is still a kind of mystique to immigrant culture, or so it appears in contemporary American literature. There is some kind of an assumption that the immigrant brings with him or her magic or old traditions from their countries that don’t exist in America. And while I can’t disagree that the Irish stories I used to hear from my own grandfather were endlessly fascinating, I never heard him speak of the Sidhe as though they were real, nor did he believe in anything more mystical than the Catholic church.
Sometimes I think that a number of traditional American writings are missing out on something that the second generation writers have captured — the sense of mystique that comes with the passing of time. Our grandparents are a kind of Other to us — growing up in a time before cell phones and computers, before instantaneous communication occurred via satellites and cell phones. They lived in a time when landing on the moon was unthinkable, when travel was uncommon, when neighborhoods had a character to them that is slowly dissipating today as people move in and out and areas gentrify.
There are entire lives lived in worlds that we did not know, and writers like Ransom Riggs, Amy Tan, and Jeffrey Eugenides are wise to cash in on this — a real way to inject magic and mystery into any story. I can remember, a year ago, after my grandfather’s funeral. We all went back to his house, to look through his personal property. My first thought was that it was gross and morbid — my aunts were running to grab the artwork that they coveted, my uncles were grabbing up old tools and electronics, and my brother was digging through drawers and closets looking for loose change and money.
But then, as we were emptying out an old desk, we came upon a veritable treasure trove. We discovered a Bronze star, and a stack of love letters that my grandmother had sent him when he’d been stationed in Guam during the war. Nobody had known that these letters existed — nobody knew that he’d been award any military honors. There was an entire life that this man lived that none of us knew anything about, that somehow, and for some reason, he had kept separate and apart.
I dont’ know that future generations will have this mystery left to them. Perhaps my parents had hid things from me, but I find it hard to believe — I can track their life stories through photo albums that my grandmother kept, through degrees earned in college, and jobs held in various places of civilian employment. I’ve heard the stories from my aunts and uncles to trace my parents from Illinois to Texas to Virginia to Michigan. There are no war stories. There are no lost love letters. There was no Great War.
But back to Miss Peregrine — it was this family drama that I found to be the most interesting, and the remnants of it that carried throughout the book — the themes of family, and distance, and otherness. It’s a good book beyond that — the characterization is consistent and mostly clever (a rarity in most young adult books) and the protagonist provides a refreshing point of view, both disillusioned and adorably naive. And, as any good first novel does, it ties up the loose ends from the beginning of the book, and provides for just one, interesting nugget to provide the impetus for a follow up.
The sequel, The Hollow City, is due in January 2014, and I’m sure that I will read it. Because even though the ancestor no longer serves as “the other” — there is now a much more tangible and concrete manifestation of the archetype — the writing is still engaging, the characters compelling, and perhaps most importantly, the photos that are so eerie and otherworldly.