One of the best things about teaching sixth graders is seeing what kinds of books they're reading. I found this at a student's table one day and got a copy for myself that night at the library. The stories are tragic, the illustrations haunting, and words practically scream for justice when there is none. Over and over, there is none.
Thornhill is a book with parallel plots careening alongside one another with only one obvious conclusion. We are told the story of Mary in her own words, from diary entries she wrote in 1982. She was an orphan at the Thornhill Institute for Children, which is being closed down. This appears to be a good thing, seeing as how the other children are horrible to her and the adults who pretend to care don't do well enough in their pretending, and by the end have given up on the charade altogether in those final days. Mary is completely and utterly alone, with only her puppets as friends, dolls that she lovingly and painstakingly creates for herself to fill her lonely world.
Ella lives in the present. She and her father have recently moved to a property adjacent to the abandoned Thornhill, and he is gone all the time at work. Ella's story is told entirely through detailed illustrations that need no words at all. Ella explores the abandoned property next door and eventually discovers the final secret the old orphanage holds.
I will be the first to admit that the story is not all that original, nor is the ending. But also keep in mind, I am not the target audience. A 6th grader reading this will look at it much differently, and likely be genuinely surprised by the story as it unfolds. Even so, again for me, the way in which the story was told makes the difference and I could not put the book down.
Both children are let down by the very adults in their lives who are supposed to care for them. I assume that Ella's mother has died and that is the reason for the relocating. She goes days at a time without seeing her father, who is always at work. Mary has created beautiful puppets and is quite talented at it, but has isolated herself and is mute due to the bullies who go after her relentlessly. There is one girl in particular who is the ringleader and she derives such pleasure for making Mary's life a living hell, it is no wonder the child does not want to leave her room. The adults at the orphanage do nothing to protect Mary, enabling the bully by not doing anything to stop the behaviors. All it would have taken was for the adults to give a fuck, even as the home was in its final days and closing down, and Mary's story might have gone so differently. In turn then, so would have Ella's.
I an not overstate how critical the illustrations are to Ella's half of the story. They provide such a chilling atmosphere, that coincides well with Thornhill being shut down back in Mary's time there. The illustrations are in black and white - and oh, the grays! - but are thick with emotion, grief and sadness and despair. Ella and Mary experience the same range of emotions for very different reasons, and it is easy to see why they are drawn to one another. Their stories compliment one another beautifully in terms of the text and illustrations. So many times I was so upset for both of them, nothing in their lives was fair to either girl.
Tragic and beautiful. Highly recommended.