Trenton Lee Stewart’s The Mysterious Benedict Society series celebrates the talents of four unique children: Reynie Muldoon, who is a logical puzzle solver; Sticky Washington, who can memorize anything; Kate Wetherall, who is agile and lightning fast; and Constance Contraire, who is, well, stubborn. When I first fell in love with the Mysterious Benedict Society ten years ago, I fell in love with Reynie most of all because I admired his curiosity and his ability to think through any problem. Sticky is good at remembering things, but, to me, Reynie seemed clever. He knew how to apply his knowledge. And, even though the Mysterious Benedict Society is a team, I, like many of the characters, saw Ryenie as the leader, the one who solves puzzles others think unsolvable.
While rereading The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey, however, I was struck by how clever all the children are. Reynie can come across as the cleverest because he fits the traditional definition of clever–he can solve logic puzzles. But all the children are necessary at one point or another to solve a particular problem; there is more than one way to be clever. Kate’s contributions to the group struck me the most during this reread. Tall, fast, and agile, Kate takes on a role typically given to male characters: that of the star athlete. But she’s more than speed and strength. She’s also a quick thinker who can anticipate ow her adversaries will react, and use that knowledge to outwit them.
Teams with an athletic type often relegate that character to the “Brawn,” as opposed to the “Brains” of the operation, but Kate demonstrates repeatedly that she understands how her unique skill set can be used to advance the goals of the Mysterious Benedict Society. Often her advantage lies in the simple fact that no one expects a person to be as fast and agile as Kate. But Kate’s cleverness goes beyond her knowledge that she is good–very good. She uses her knowledge of her abilities to come up with solutions to problems no one else might consider, since they are not thinking of a physical solution to the problem.
Kate is able to do more than think of ways to use her athleticism, however. She is also able to recognize when her enemies expect her to use her talents. As a result, she has become a rather convincing actress. She is self-aware enough to realize that her enemies see her as somewhat impetuous and quick to react, so a recurring trick for her is to make a bold attempt to escape or fight that her adversaries anticipate. Once they seemingly subdue her, they turn their attention to other matters. But Kate has usually done something her enemies did not expect while they were responding to her calculated show of defiance. She outwits her opponents, not with sheer physicality, but with her mind.
Kate’s characterization warmed my heart because it feels so rare to have a female character who gets to be the athletic team member–the one who is taller, stronger, and faster than all the rest. It is Kate who regularly carries Constance, who fights back, who continues on when everyone else is exhausted. Seeing Kate glory in her talents is wondrous. And it is even more inspiring that Kate combines her athleticism with her own brand of cleverness. Ten years later, the Mysterious Benedict Society is still subverting reader expectations. Perhaps soon, Kate’s characterization will no longer seem so radical.