December 20, 2007


Parade of Shadows. By Gloria Whelan. HarperCollins. $15.99.

The Man with the Red Bag. By Eve Bunting. Joanna Cotler/HarperCollins. $15.99.

      Here are a couple of mystery-adventures for preteens and young teenagers in which the settings are at least as interesting as the characterizations. Readers ages 10 and up with a yen for travel – and ones who have tried it and liked it – will enjoy the exotic time and place of Parade of Shadows and the less unusual but equally mysterious locations of The Man with the Red Bag.

      Gloria Whelan’s book is set in the Middle East – not the war-torn Middle East of today, but the more exotic locale of 100 years ago. Parade of Shadows is nevertheless a political book of sorts, since there were just as many undercurrents and crosscurrents in Istanbul, Damascus and Palymra in 1907 as there are in the region today. Julia Hamilton, Whelan’s restless 16-year-old heroine, visits all those cities and more on horseback after a trip across Europe aboard the famed Orient Express. Yes, this is the train made notorious by Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and since used as the setting for scads of lesser mysteries. But the mysteries Julia encounters appear mostly after the train ride, as she meets the companions with whom she is traveling on an expedition led by her father. Julia’s mother has been dead 10 years, and her father has steadfastly refused to let her join him in his travels – until now. His own motivation becomes one mystery among many, with others revolving around a British horticulturist, a French collector of antiques, and an attractive male student whose manner, like those of the other expedition members, conceals secrets. The book is a journey of discovery for Julia: “I slipped out for some air and, walking a short distance from the celebration, fell at once into the emptiness of the desert. In London I rarely saw the stars, and then only the bright ones. In the desert the sky was populated with countless stars and looked like a great black tent pricked all over to let in the light of some night sun.” Most of what Julia discovers, alas, is how duplicitous people can be, and how difficult it can be to decide whom to trust. She even comes to question whether her father is telling her the truth – rightly, as it turns out. Parade of Shadows is carefully researched and deals on the level of individual human beings with important political currents in the years leading up to World War I. It will be of most interest to readers already fascinated by this historical period – others may find its lengthy discussions of the issues of that day rather tedious.

      The Man with the Red Bag is a less ambitious book. Eve Bunting’s tale of 12-year-old Kevin Saunders’ cross-country bus trip is set at a time with very different political and social problems: the United States after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. It is nine months later when Kevin joins his grandmother for a sightseeing trip – and spots an exotic-looking stranger named Charles Stavros, who is carrying a red bag that he holds close all the time, and to which he even talks. Stavros has a sinister look about him, and Kevin is sure he is up to no good – so he resolves to keep an eye on him, for the sake of the security of the country (and to satisfy his own curiosity). The Man with the Red Bag combines sightseeing at the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone and Mt. Rushmore with the mystery on which Kevin is focused. There turns out to be a 9/11 connection to the red bag after all, but its contents are – not surprisingly – very far from terrorism, with Bunting using the whole story as a sort of moral warning against profiling people based on how they look and the odd ways in which they seem to behave. This is a na├»ve message in the real world, though, and young readers of this book may wonder why in real life they have been learning to focus on strangers’ unusual appearance and behavior – while Bunting is arguing that such observation is meaningless.

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