A frightening playground accident involving a near-death experience opens MYSTIC OF THE MIDWAY, an adventure/horror novel for pre-teens. The question troubling 10-year-old Effie Strawn and her family is whether her hallucinations since the accident are due to brain trauma requiring longer hospitalization. But the Strawns opt for a change of scene — vacation at their summer cabin near Crystal Beach Park, an amusement center in Fort Erie, a tourist town on the Canadian side of Lake Erie. The town’s houses as well the amusement park (an actual place that existed from 1890 to 1989) are deteriorating. References to pop culture current in Effie’s life — such as songs by Madonna and Prince — establish the time as the early 1980s. Author A.A. Blair knows the decade and the setting well having vacationed there in childhood.
Blair builds suspense, tension, and anxiety within the story’s opening pages. Even in the family car on the way to their destination, Effie hears strange whispering but says nothing about it. She worries about how her super-logical twin brother, Jimmie, and her parents, Michael and Elizabeth, doubt her experiences and treat her like a “delicate vase.” In their tiny beach house, and especially at the amusement park, Effie is afflicted by voices and visions no one else can hear or see. In particular, the whispering draws her eyes to a phantom teenage girl in a fancy dripping wet dress “from a different time”. At night, Effie becomes the girl in her dreams, running away from an abusive parent. And during waking hours, she discovers that she has the ability to know what people — both real and apparitions — are thinking and feeling. Effie fears hospitalization if she tells her brother or parents about these experiences. Blair moderates the creepiness with humor, such as the klutziness of Effie’s father who — talk about concussion — regularly bangs his head on the hood of his car’s trunk. And there is teenage fun between Effie and her best summer friend, 13-year-old Lydia, including when they dance to rock music on a bed or babysit Lydia’s little brother Sniff, who thinks he is a pirate. In addition, Blair gives readers a more common fear to share with Effie and her brother, James — the possibility of divorce.
MYSTIC OF THE MIDWAY is intended for readers from ages 8 to 12. Its language, length, and plot development are appropriate for children in that range. However, some of its ideas may be heavy for young readers, especially ones who have observed mental illness or domestic violence. Teachers and parents should be prepared for discussions about brain trauma as well as psychic breaks versus extrasensory experiences.
A well-crafted debut novel, A.A. Blair’s MYSTIC OF THE MIDWAY offers serious food for thought for young readers, without being too scary.
~Alicia Rudnicki for IndieReader