BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Henry York goes to stay in Henry, Kansas, with his Aunt’s family. While adjusting to the new life, he discovers that behind the plaster of his bedroom wall are dozens and dozens of cupboards. 99 of them. When opened, they all seem to go to other worlds far beyond Kansas.
PROS: Strong and beautiful language; an intriguing premise which takes it’s time, to good effect; wonderful dialog and characterization.
CONS: The slow pace might put some readers off, those who are expecting a fast-past fantasy novel.
BOTTOM LINE: This is such a good book, I think it’s a shame it’s ONLY in the young-adult sections. There should be copies everywhere, so everyone reads it.
I had never heard of 100 Cupboards or its author, N.D. Wilson, before two weeks ago when I was standing in my local Target, staring blankly at a wall of young adult novels while my son looked at some other books, across the aisle from me. I picked it up because the cover was striking, and I put it in the cart because the premise sounded interesting. I took it home, intending to just read the first couple of pages, and wound up devouring the book in a couple of days. The next time I was near Target, I grabbed books 2 and 3 of the trilogy in delight. If I always wound up coming away with books this good, I’d randomly grab books off the shelves a lot more often.
The premise begins simply: Henry York’s parents, weird and distant people, have been kidnapped, and so Henry has gone off to live with his Aunt and her family, in the town of Henry, Kansas. Aunt Dotty, her husband Frank, and their three daughters, and now Henry, living in a big house out on a farm. They’re kind, but odd, and Henry is the awkward child of neurotic parents who has no idea how to fit in outside of a world of tutors and boarding schools. Fitting in becomes secondary, though, when he chips away the plaster on one wall of his attic bedroom and is surprised to find little doors. Dozens of them. 99 cupboards, of various sizes and shapes, all up and down the wall. When he manages to open one, he discovers that they don’t have backs to them, but instead look out into other worlds: one peers out at the thick soil and roots of a big tree, in a world nothing like Kansas. Another one seems to open into a post-office box.
Together with the oldest of the three daughters, Henrietta, Henry begins opening and exploring the cupboards, trying to learn where they’ve come from, and where they open onto, since it appears to be an entirely different world.
This is the starting premise of the book, but it’s far from the only thing the book focuses on, much to my surprise and delight. Despite being a relatively thin book — it’s not tiny, but this is no Harry-Potter-esque-tome — 100 Cupboards takes a long, slow time to bring the fantastic in, and a longer time exploring and developing it. This is a slow-moving novel, and that’s to its credit. As we gradually learn more and more about the fantastic wall of cupboards, what we also spend time doing is learning about life in the house, exploring the town of Henry, Kansas, and baseball, which is something Henry’s never played and gradually warms up to.
The wonderful thing about this slow build is how vividly it paints the rural life in Kansas, and how skillfully N.D. Wilson draws his characters, who are deep and complex and entirely human. In fact, because we know so little about the mysterious worlds beyond the cupboards, Kansas and the people living in the town are clear and sharp and what we are engaged in, and the fantastical worlds beyond are as blurred and strange to us as they are to the characters.
This careful drawing of characters means that when danger arises — as it inevitably must — you are genuinely concerned for the fates of these people. It also means that absolutely nothing can actually be happening in a scene, and it’s still enjoyable just for the dynamics between people. Frank, Aunt Dotty’s husband, is strange and so laid-back as to be puzzling, Henrietta is closer to Henry than anyone, yet is standoffish, difficult, and manipulative (but never evil, and never to be resented).
So the story is wonderful and intriguing, and the characters are complex and engaging, and this would have been good enough. But what surprised me the most about the book was the language. It is beautiful and noticeable, with Wilson’s skill of writing in clear, poetic language reminding me throughout the book of Madeline L’Engle, who likewise had such a powerful ability with language that you couldn’t help but notice it, even as you were immersed in the story. It’s that strong. I kept having to stop and quote passages at people. In fact, I want to quote the first paragraph from the first page. I’m allowed to. It’s my book review. The book begins like this:
Henry, Kansas is a hot town. ANd a cold town. It is a town so still there are times when you can hear a fly trying to get through the window of the locked-up antique store on Main Street. Nobody remembers who owns the antique store, but if you press your face against the glass, like the fly, you’ll see that whoever, they don’t have much beyond a wide variety of wagon wheels. Yes, Henry is a still town. But there have been tornadoes on Main Street. If the wind blows, it’s like it won’t ever stop. Once it’s stopped, there seems to be no hope of getting it started again.
Quoting passages is always a dubious business, in that a passage of text which excites one person won’t necessarily excite another. Still, I find the language exciting throughout the book. (The first paragraph of book two is even better. But I’ll be good and not quote that one until I review book two.)
There is a deep back-story inside the book. The whole book, and all of the characters, and all of the plot, is weighed down by the history of all that has come before, and it pervades everything that happens within this book. That’s wonderful, for me, but I could see where it might disconcert someone, who could come away feeling as if there’s a book that has happened before this one began, and they haven’t been privy to it. In a lot of ways, this is exactly true. Fortunately, while things are occasionally mysterious, they are never confusing or vague. The book stands on its own, with the promise of more to come in the next two books.
I do wish that this book had an adult edition, or a generic edition that could sit happily in any part of a bookstore, and not just YA. Someone who “doesn’t read YA” won’t find this book, and that’s a tragedy, because I think it’s amazing. I suppose they’ll find it eventually, when it’s become a “classic” and goes onto a whole other set of shelves. At least, I hope that’s what will happen. Mostly, I’m left with the desire to buy a dozen copies of 100 Cupboards and push them onto everyone I know, protesting or not, rest assured that they’ll thank me once they’ve read it.
Failing to do that, I’ll instead just entreat you, here at the end, to go find yourself a copy. If it’s available at my local Target, it’s surely available anywhere that books are to be gotten. N.D. Wilson has a number of books published beyond his 100 Cupboards trilogy, and that’s wonderful news, for those of us who are only satisfied with more, more, more. I’m always elated when I try a new author and wind up thinking “you’ve discovered someone to follow and collect.” It adds a little excitement to life.
Go get your copy. And grab any friends you have to “don’t read YA” and haul them kicking and screaming toward this book. Once they’ve read it, they’ll drop all charges against you. Honest.