A Beginning, a Muddle, and an End: The
The Seer of Shadows. By Avi. HarperCollins. $16.99.
Perhaps the most charmingly convoluted introduction to the art and craft of writing ever created, Avi’s A Beginning, a Muddle, and an End features the return of Avon the snail and Edward the ant in a surprisingly philosophical and verbally intricate adventure in which nothing much happens except a lengthy discussion of what it means to write, how one writes, what one writes about, and how one gets those thoughts – whatever they may be – down on paper. These characters previously appeared in The End of the Beginning, which was clearly aimed at young readers with an offbeat sense of humor. A Beginning, a Muddle, and an End, though, is appropriate for anyone interested in writing, although it will actually be too complex and filled with wordplay for literalists (whether young or old). Here, for example, is Edward’s explanation to
What Avi is writing is a series of highly effective novels, most of them far more straightforward than A Beginning, a Muddle, and an End. His A Seer of Shadows is a very effective ghost story and historical romance, intended for ages 8-12 but packed with enough drama and interesting history to be attractive even to young teenagers. The word “seer” usually means “prophet,” but here it literally means “see-er,” one who sees, because that is what Horace Carpetine turns out to be. This is a tale of the early days of photography, and Avi’s descriptions of the making of early photos using glass plates are knowledgeable, fascinating and absolutely crucial to the tale. Horace is apprenticed to a not-very-honest photographer named Enoch Middleditch, who decides he can make some extra money by arranging for ghostly images of dead children to appear within photos of wealthy grieving women. The way this is done – by double exposure – is interesting enough; but unknown both to Middleditch and (initially) to Horace, the apprentice can really make ghosts show up in pictures. And, it turns out, he can bring one particular ghost back into the real world – in search of revenge. The book is a thriller, a ghost story and a tale of changing social fabric all in one. The last of these elements comes from the developing friendship and respect between Horace, who is white, and Pegg, the black servant of the rich couple that Middleditch hopes to defraud. The intertwining of the world of the quick and the dead parallels that of whites and blacks in this post-Civil War era, leading eventually to a merger of the two stories and an ambiguous ending that will leave readers with a touch of uncertainty and even fear. Avi is a see-er himself – of the past, of present readers, and of future would-be writers.