Goodreads: The Water Castle
After his father suffers a stroke, Ephraim Appledore-Smith and his family move to their ancestral home in a small town known as Crystal Springs. There, legend has it, his forebears conducted the search for the Fountain of Youth. Ephraim does not believe in such stories at first, but everyone in Crystal Springs does seem to be a little bit smarter, a little bit stronger. Is it possible that the water really is magic and, if it is, can it heal his father?
The beginning of The Water Castle promises a solid, if perhaps standard, middle-grade fantasy. All the key elements are there: a sudden move to an ancestral home, local legends that speak of magic, the meeting of children whose families share a history. Even Ephraim’s character is comfortably expected–he is a slightly troubled boy, unable to cope with his father’s stroke, who hopes (futilely) to remake himself as the cool kid at a new school. However, though these elements combine, for the bulk of the story, to deliver a fairly engaging read, the open ending ultimately left me unsatisfied.
Without regard to the end, The Water Castle is a fair enough read. It blends history, science, and magic to create a mystery that, if not exactly compelling, at least piques enough interest to keep readers going despite the uneven pacing of the tale. At times I found the history a little heavy-handed (the students all sing the praises of North Pole explorer Robert Peary as if he is a god–a little strange for middle-schoolers, I thought) and at other times I wished the science were a little more fleshed-out. Still, I appreciate the attempt to make learning cool for the younger audience–even if the idea of magic water bolstering the intelligence of the children sort of suggests that the audience themselves may have to settle for the role of Ephraim, who, being new to town (and not having drunk the water for years), does not really understand anything going on around him.
Perspective shifts between Ephraim’s tale and that of his immortality-seeking ancestor also attempt to draw readers into history, bringing them from the present-day idolization of Peary to the moment of his historical journey. And Megan Frazer Blakemore makes sure we get a play-by-play, all through the eyes of a young and ambitious female servant. Evidently living the Peary expedition is the main purpose of the historical backflashes because they do not serve the plot in any meaningful way and, indeed, any information revealed there is withheld from Ephraim and his friends. Basically they are just little bits of insider information, so that when Ephraim finds an old newspaper clipping or a box, readers can think, “Hey! That girl owned that box!” Such moments do not make suffering through the stilted language of the historical characters (an attempt to make them seem different, older) seem worthwhile.
The withholding of information from Ephraim and his friends continues to the very end, where readers might expect the characters to go through several key scenes, including the revelation of the origin of the Fountain of Youth (and who in town might have drunk some), the reunion of Ephraim’s friend’s family, and a meeting between Ephraim and his father (whom he hopes to have cured). None of these scenes appear, so readers who were hoping for closure are left hanging. It is true that readers know the answers to some of these questions (seriously, it’s really obvious that someone drank the water but no one in the story ever comes close to realizing it), but other answers are left unclear, a nod perhaps to the complexity of real life.
But this isn’t real life. It’s a fantasy for middle-school children and I longed for the happy reunions and the startling revelations that never came. I wish the author had chosen a definitive path–a straightforward happy fantasy full of wonder, or a darker one that acknowledges the messiness of it all. Because the book sometimes comes close to that messiness, vaguely wondering whether drinking from the Fountain of Youth would be worth it, but then quickly veering away before anything can become too philosophical. It is an odd balancing act, and one that does not really work.
My library has other works by Blakemore and, based on the cover blurb, I had intended to read one of them. Now that I have seen the uneven pacing of The Water Castle, however, and the strangely abrupt ending, I have decided not to borrow it after all.