The Water Castle, by Megan Frazer Blakemore (Walker Childrens, middle grade, Jan. 2013)
The three Appledore-Smith kids were leading a perfectly normal life until the horrible day their father suffered a debilitating stroke. Next thing they know, their mother is dragging them off north to the town of Crystal Springs, Maine--to the mysterious old Water Castle, a tangled labyrinth of a house built by their ancestor. There he had hoped to find the water of life...and there Ephraim, the middle child, can't help but hope that if the stories of the water of life are true, it might break his father free from the prison the stroke has trapped him in.
With the unlikely, and at first unwilling, help of Mallory, whose family worked for the Appledore family long ago, and Will, whose family has nursed a feud against them for over a century, Ephraim begins to explore the Water Castle. He and his new comrades find themselves solving a mystery that combines science and story, past and present. And at the end, there is the water...
Interspersed with the story of Ephraim and co. are flashbacks to the past of 1908, that tell the story of Nora, a young black girl from Mallory's family, recruited by old Mr. Applebaum so long ago to help him in his quest for the water of life. She was his research assistant, hobnobbing with the likes of Nicola Tesla, seizing the chance to learn all she could so that she could explore all the great, vast world, like the explorers racing to be the first to find the North Pole...and her story plays an integral part in shaping the present.
The Water Castle is perhaps slow to start, and I was initially unwarmed by the uncomfortable social dynamics in which Ephraim finds himself enmeshed--lots of things go wrong at first, especially at school. It didn't seem like the book was going to live up to the promise of its utterly appealing cover. But as the story progressed, and grew simultaneously more focused and more complex, I was sucked in. And was rewarded by the very nice twist at the end.
There's radioactivity, tragedy, generations of complex social relationships, a Van der Graaf generator that turns ugly on Ephraim, libraries full of books, hidden rooms that defy conventional architecture, questions about what science is, and what exploration is--why does it matter if the North Pole is found? And there's the biggest question of all--if the water of life was real (even if it just extended your natural life), would you drink it?
Best thing--the science is really cool, and the book stars both girls and boys who love it. Give this one to your kid who likes both fantasy and the history of science--it's not fantasy, but it has that feel.
It's possible to explain everything that happens rationally, and the reader can have fun doing that. But it's a much more powerful story (that twist I mentioned....) if you can suspend disbelief, and accept, along with Ephraim and Mallory and Will, that science can be truly wondrous.
Here are other reviews, at Fuse # 8 and at Random Musings of a Bibliophile
Disclaimer: I received a surprise review copy from the publisher just recently. I had already gone out and bought my own on a biblio-shopping-therapy whim (at an indie bookstore, so I could feel Righteous), and I had picked this one out because it was the only one that had a kid on the cover who wasn't white--Mallory (because if enough people buy more books with non-white kids on the cover, maybe there will be more of them some day), and because the cover was, in more general terms, one that screamed at me that this was a book I had to read. Stone griffins etc. Of course, having bought the book, I felt no pressure to actually read it, because there was no rush to do so, so I'm very glad I got a second one that came with the all impetus attached to review copies! Now I keep one, the library gets one, and everyone is happy.
Except perhaps Ephraim and Will and Mallory, who are left in a somewhat "eeks what will happen next" place....