Tommy Pepper looked down beneath the cafeteria table at his fallen Ace Robotroid Adventure lunch box, and there among the spilled carrot and celery sticks, something…well, something glowed. Tommy blinked. Whatever it was, it really was glowing a little bit. He reached down and picked it up.
A chain. Green and silver. Heavy.
“Is that your present?” said Patrick Belknap.
Tommy nodded. He held the chain in the light.
“What a dumb present,” said James Sullivan.
If you only knew, thought Tommy Pepper.
“It’s not dumb,” said Alice Winslow. “It’s beautiful.”
“He got a beautiful chain for his birthday and you don’t think that’s dumb?”
[Tommy] dropped the chain over his head and tucked it beneath his shirt. It felt warm. It felt like it had been made for him.
Even Tommy Pepper, age 12, of Plymouth, Massachusetts, has no idea what sort of gift has come into his hands. From worlds away, from far, far, far beyond the stars he could see in his own night sky, this chain has been flung in the final desperate throes of an epic battle in the land of the Valorim. There, in a clutch effort to keep evil Lord Mondus from gaining the most treasured element of their society, this chain was forged; it is made up of all the Arts, the powerful founts of beauty, of their culture. If Mondus gets his hands on it, he will snuff out any remaining good, silence the songs, and use Art’s transfixing power for his own fiendish gains.
All this, Tommy does not know. With this mysterious chain in his possession, however, strange things begin to occur as the powerful Arts of the Vallorim well up within him. For one thing, he is able to sing forth the depths of his grief, grief inexpressible to this point, in the 257 days since his mother died. For another, he could remember her, vividly, with aching nearness. Besides this, his imagination could be brought to life, almost. Paintings that pulse with life. Desires that take shape before his eyes.
Of course, treacherous Lord Mondus is not about to let this power slip from his hands, and soon, to the terror of the people of Plymouth, diabolical things begin happening in their town as forces from beyond the stars seek for Tommy Pepper and for what he has.
On the surface, this sounds like an intriguing fantasy plot, and it is that. Fleshed out in chilling detail, spiked with words and phrases from an unearthly language, flowing with unusual, imaginative twists and turns. If you’ve read any of Gary Schmidt’s other work, though, you know there is a whole lot going on beneath the surface, and that is one of the things I love (okay, gush over) about his novels.
This is, as usual, a novel with lots of layers. First up, it has a lot to say about art; about the power of art to express the deepest longings of our hearts, our most profound emotions, to restore, to heal. In this story, music plays a central role, but visual art is also here, and of course, the art of words in Schmidt’s own writing is ever present. Schmidt grafts into his story the beautiful details of the ordinary, he lifts our gaze to see the beauty in the stars, or in a duck’s “startling orange bill” or the way someone we love moves her hands. The opposing forces of creativity and beauty, versus destruction and ugliness; song vs. silence run throughout the story. And there are many facets to this beauty.
The other, obvious layer, is the intense struggle with grief that Tommy, his little sister Patty, and his father are experiencing. Schmidt stirs into this tale the tumultuous mix of heartache, grief, guilt, shame, and loss that have flooded Tommy’s world. He does this in such a way that it does not color the story black, but rather reveals a bruised purple. It’s not Tommy’s lot to have a sunny, silly life. Schmidt acknowledges that children often must cope with dramatic grief; that facing loss can feel to any of us as overwhelming as wrestling with an other-worldly terror, that it is rather like a pervasive stench that lingers everywhere but which others don’t seem to smell.
Far from a depressing story, however, Schmidt answers this grief with honest measures of relief. This comes, in large part, through Tommy’s family and friends. Again, children are portrayed as those capable of lion-hearted loyalty, of standing with a friend who is going through incomprehensible storms, of the small gestures of companionship and love that touch us deeply. As we’ve seen in his other writing, we find themes of the heroic strength of the small, the meek, the good, against the powerful cruelties of our world. Schmidt has an uncanny ability to depict honest, rich, accepting, relationships that we all yearn for, often between very ordinary kids, using warm humor one moment and aching tenderness the next.
There is more to mine here as well, but I don’t want to ruin it for your book club discussions 🙂 The requisite “inane authority figures” Schmidt draws so well make their appearances here. And I caught an echo of Bilbo’s mercy towards Gollum, a sense of pity which, as Gandalf would say, “may rule the fate of many.”
As you can tell from my review, this is not a book for young children. I’d start at about age 12, running on up through adults. Depending on the child, this will read as sheerly a fantasy, or a deeper-themed novel. It is not an easy read, at any rate, with the Valorim sections written grammatically in the form of an old saga, and with Valorim vocabulary sprinkled heavily into the story, requiring the use of the glossary at the end of the book. Avid readers who are old enough to read between the lines a bit (8th grade and up, perhaps) will gain the most from this extraordinarily well-crafted book.
Here’s the Amazon link: What Came from the Stars