Dover Book

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    WOW! What an absolutely wonderful story! This is a feel-good read, that reminds us of everything that was once good in humanity: love, compassion, forgiveness, loyalty, selflessness, and a positive outlook; and also reminds us that only those without sin should be casting the first stone. It is a bitter statement on Victorian/religious austerity, some critics believing it was also a reflection of Collins' own childhood misery. Though it's a mystery, it is not a murder—more of an "identity" mystery, filled with wry humor and moments of great sadness—very "Dickensian" in nature. And no wonder: Collins and Dickens were good friends, with Dickens serving also as a mentor to the newly emerging Collins. In addition, Collins dedicated this novel to his life-long friend.
    Wilkie Collins was born in 1824, twelve years after Dickens. Though he had written some earlier, less significant works, this one, published in 1854, was considered the one that brought him recognition as a serious writer. It takes place over roughly twenty five years or so, but goes back and forth as events are revealed that solve the identity mystery of the deaf-mute Mary, also called Madonna. There are lots of seemingly disparate characters that eventually come together as pieces in a puzzle, as the true history of our young lady is discovered.
    The story begins with a screaming six-year-old Zach Thorpe, as he, unable to sit through a two-hour long sermon in church, is pulled home by his angry father to receive punishment, which means being locked up in a cold room to memorize a Bible text. As usual, his mother, and his mother's father seek to melt Thorpe's severity toward his child to no avail. As we see later, he never does! Zach grows up to be an ornery child, a bit of a wild one, in fact, yet filled with love and good humor. Unfortunately, but understandably, he and his father are never truly reconciled.
    We also meet our hero, Valentine Blythe as a young man. He is offered a position with Blythe and Company, where "his fortune was secured." But he, however has other ideas, and his true passion is art. The problem is, he just isn't a great artist. His father, though disappointed, sets him up with support money, and he is able to pursue his dream. And to make things even worse, he falls in love with a woman below his station, the youngest of eight sisters, called Lavinia-Ada, or Lavvie. And not only is she poor, but she has a spinal condition that, it was warned, could regress to a debilitating level. Still, Valentine follows his heart, and they are married. The blurb on the back cover of the Dover edition calls him "a failure as an artist but a success as a human being." And he truly becomes our hero—actually he and Lavvie set the example of the embodiment of all that is perfect in humanity: love, faithfulness, honesty, cheerfulness and kindness.
    As expected, Lavvie's condition does worsen soon after marriage, and she is destined to be confined to her bed for the rest of her life. But nothing changes in their relationship. However, the physical state of Valentine's beloved wife does inspire him in his art, and he finds that he is able to do paintings and commissions that pay quite well. He pours out all he makes into turning his wife's room into everything that could possibly make her happy and keep her spirits up.
    We now visit them years later. Valentine is now well established. Little Zach is now grown, still miserable with his father, but friends with Blythe, the only person he can trust. He has decided to be an artist—he must escape the business position in which he was placed and despises. He threatens running away, and appeals to Valentine for help. But there is another person now in the Blythe household, a beautiful young lady, who can neither speak nor hear, but communicates fine through sign language. She tidies up the studio, and also works on her own drawings. She blushes at the appearance of Zach.
    But we must go back in time to find how this mystery girl has joined the Blythe household. Valentine has left London for some painting commissions in Rubbleford by his friend the Reverend Doctor Joyce, Rector at St. Judy's. He is painting the Doctor's babies, and some other requests. Meanwhile, he notices a sign for a circus in town: Jubber's Circus. The Eighth Wonder of the World. Here he sees advertised, also: The Mysterious Foundling! Aged Ten Years!! Totally Deaf and Dumb!!! Intrigued, he attends, but when the child's eyes meet his, something unexplained happens. After the show, the wife of the clown, Mrs. Peckover, finds him out back, and wonders is he knows anything about the child, and begs him not to tell, if he does, because it was she who took the child in after her mother's death.
    The next night, Valentine returns again to the circus. This time, the child gets flustered upon seeing him and makes some errors. Valentine later hears Jubber beating her. He goes around back again, and tells Mrs. Peckover to bring the child to the rectory at twelve the next day.
    She and Mary do manage to sneak away, and arrive for lunch at the appointed time. She tells the story of how they came across the baby with her poor, dying mother. The baby was starving because her mother's milk had dried up, so Mrs. Peckover, having a baby herself, suckled the child. They rescue the poor mother, and secure her a job at the circus, but she dies very soon after, making Mrs. Peckover promise to take care of her child, and giving her a hair bracelet, that she said was very important. And indeed, it proves to be most important.
    Valentine Blythe, of course, has determined to take Mary home with him as his adopted daughter, for many reasons: to get her away from the cruel circus life; to provide a child for his invalid wife; because he can give her all she could want or need to be happy; and because he loves her. Though Mrs. Peckover is aghast at the thought, when Jubber finds them out and comes to the rectory to threaten them, she knows they cannot go back. Of course, Blythe assures her she may visit them any time, and the Rector will vouch for the uprightness of his kind, though eccentric friend. The adoption proves to be a match made in heaven for all parties involved, with one catch only: Blythe lives in mild fear that someone will claim his dear Mary, and take her away.
    And that is the "Hide" part of the book. The second part is the "Seek" and happens as Zach is out on one of his secret nighttime excursions, and gets caught in a fight because some of the rowdies at a sleazy joint called the Snuggery want to beat up on a man because he is wearing a black skullcap. And that is how Zach meets Matthew Marksman.
    And here is where I will stop, because I don't want to unravel the rest of the mystery. This is just such an awesome story, and very easy to read. You won't want to put it down. Highly recommended.


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