Title: The Dark Unwinding I Author: Sharon Cameron I Publisher: Scholastic
The Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) offers the following synopsis for The Dark Unwinding:
Sent to prove her uncle insane, Katherine discovers another windup world.
Actual Plot Summary: (Written in first person) seventeen year old Katherine Tulman lives in 1852 London with her miserly and verbally abusive Aunt Alice and her spoiled cousin Robert. Because she is orphaned without a penny of her own, she is left to bookkeeping and financial management for her cousin who will ultimately become heir of an estate called Stranwyne Keep. Stranwyne is financially dwindling due to the presumed mismanagement of Uncle Frederick Tulman (Uncle Tully) and Katherine is dispatched to Stranwyne in order to observe and substantiate Aunt Alice's claims of insanity and incompetence. It is Aunt Alice's plan to have Uncle Tully declared insane so that she can be named executor until Robert comes of age.
Upon arriving at Stranwyne Keep, Katherine is dropped into a bizarre world of mechanical genius where Uncle Tully creates intricate toys that help to keep two villages employed. This is why finances are dwindling. It is because the manufacturing of toys requires a large infrastructure which is employing hundreds of people who had previously been abandoned to workhouses. Uncle Tully's lawyer (Mr. Babcock) assures Katherine that the two towns will be self-sufficient in short order and will be able to live independently of the estate at which point the estate may be handed over to the legal heir.
The hitch is that Uncle Tully has what the modern world would recognize to be a highly functioning form of autism. By Victorian standards, he is insane.
Those who watch out for Uncle Tully ask Katherine to lie to Aunt Alice so that Uncle Tully will be kept free of the asylum and the villagers will be kept out of the workhouses. When Katherine indicates that she would not be inclined to lie, the villagers and Uncle Tully's personal staff become hostile to Katherine's presence.
Katherine agrees to stay on for a month to observe the workings of the estate before she makes her report to her aunt. Uncle Tully loves Katherine because she looks and acts like his beloved mother Marianne who has passed away. He responds very well to her, and Katherine soon realizes (much to her chagrin) that she wants to protect Uncle Tully. There are two men on the estate that take a romantic interest in Katherine and that too has her confused.
Within days of arriving at Stranwyne Keep, Katherine begins to exhibit strange behaviors and people think she is either a drunkard or possibly as insane as her uncle. She is swept into a world of intrigue and danger. The suspense will keep the reader entertained until the almost "happily-ever-after" ending reveals Katherine as the proper heir of Stranwyne Keep.
This young adult book has earned a Young Teen rating for drug usage, alcohol usage, aberrant behaviors, mild suspense, violence, romance and mildly suggestive themes. It also receives four and a half stars for story development.
Review : I can hardly contain myself because after thirteen book reviews – eleven of which detailed the recommendations of the American Library Association's Best Fiction for Young Adults in 2013 – I can finally agree with YALSA about one of its recommended YA books. In order to better understand what went right with The Dark Unwinding, let us start with some basics.
The Dark Unwinding by Sharon Cameron uses a vocabulary that is understandable to the average seventh grader. Comprehension also requires about a seventh grade reading level and this means that the subject matter of Cameron's story matches the optimal conflict level to which her target age group should be exposed. YALSA defines the young adult audience as children between the ages of 12 to 18. Appropriate composition is delivered by Cameron. This point in and of itself is cause for subdued celebration.
The Dark Unwinding is written in the style of a classical Victorian romance (think Wuthering Heights, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Great Expectations) with the steampunk genre (The Time Machine, The Difference Engine, Mainspring) heavily influencing the writer's work…although, I believe, there's perhaps not enough Sci-Fi contained in the story to encourage teenaged boys to read this novel, which too bad since quality literature for boys is really hard to find.
The author shows great proficiency with descriptive writing. She is capable of drawing the reader into her story by inviting one to experience the world surrounding the main character just as Katherine Tulman is experiencing it. Atmospheric in its detailed description, the story nearly radiates charisma. Sharon Cameron remembers to include sensory integration as part of Katherine's discovery process in just about every chapter so that when Katherine, for instance, is feeling unwell, there is a step-by-step revelation as to what "unwell" actually feels like. The reader is invited to imagine what Katherine is seeing and smelling and tasting and experiencing at most times, which is the mark of good fiction.
Also handled with dexterity and sensitivity by Ms. Cameron is Uncle Tully's autism as witnessed and managed by Katherine Tulman. This was the most interesting interaction between any two characters in the book as it advocates for the talents and genius that can often be hidden under layers of obsessive-compulsive behaviors that the sufferer of autism exhibits.
More interesting still is the reader's discovery that Katherine herself displays milder forms of obsessive compulsive behavior which manifest in her compulsion to count and work out math problems when she feels insecure or threatened. Katherine is imperfect but this makes her more accessible to the reader.
One can never be quite certain what a writer intends to express through her characters, but I interpret this nuance in Katherine's character as the author's proposal that all human's display varying gradations of the autistic spectrum. It underscores a theme threaded throughout the story that every human life is valuable and should be treated with a degree of dignity.
We see this theme repeat itself through the character of Uncle Tully, a young mute boy named David and the inhabitants of two villages that had been cast away by society only to be reformed through the employment that Uncle Tully's estate provides.
So let's look at some issues that parents might want to know. Please be advised that this book, among other things, is a romance novel. There are romantic interludes between the characters Katherine and Lane Moreau. I would, however, classify these passages as mild by today's standards. But…there's always a but, isn't there…there is a point in The Dark Unwinding where Lane stretches out on Katherine's bed while Katherine is in bed. She narrates her heightened sense of impropriety about this situation. Katherine is convalescing and there's a chaperone of sorts in the room, but it is still an unnecessary deviation from the highly proper disposition that Sharon Cameron has carved out for her character. That is the extent of the reader's exposure to sexually suggestive themes, but parents of young or sensitive children will want to keep this episode in mind.
Also be aware that there are alcohol and drug references in this book. The main character is – by Victorian standards – of a legal drinking age, and alcohol is used temperately when it is consumed. The drug usage refers to character Ben Aldridge spiking Katherine's food and drink with opium to induce erratic behavior that might be interpreted as drunkenness or insanity. The erratic behavior occurs frequently throughout the story, but the reader is not made aware of how or why it is happening until the story's end.
Because Ben Aldridge's attempt to undermine Katherine's authority and integrity is an essential motivating force for the Aldridge character, drug usage may be deemed a pivotal act in the furtherance of the storyline. It is also noteworthy that the author in no way glamorizes the intoxication. With that in mind, the drug references still may be troubling to sensitive readers. Parents should use their best judgment in deciding if this book is suitable for their own children.
I am happy to say that I do recommend this book for children between the ages of (a mature) 13 and 18 years of age. As noted above, The Dark Unwinding earns four and a half stars and loses a half a star because the book ends without reasonable resolution between main characters. This sets up the author for a sequel. I personally disagree that it's permissible for children's books to demand the purchase of a new book to resolve issues within the first. Such an overt sales job also makes it difficult to get behind a story because while a first book in a series might be highly appropriate, the second might deteriorate in its suitability for kids.