Eleanor Cameron was hardly idle after abandoning the Mushroom Planet books that had brought her so many fans. She continued to write a book every other year or so, including A Room Made of Windows, a critically well received, more mainstream novel that eventually led to her abandonment of fantasy and science fiction writing for children.
But before turning completely to those mainstream novels, one more book haunted her: The Court of the Stone Children.
Nina, newly arrived in San Francisco, is miserable and lonely. She has no gift for making friends, though she’s certainly found schoolmates willing to make fun of her. She’s lonely enough to strike up a conversation with another odd, apparently lonely boy, Gil, confessing her love of museums to him. He in turn points her to a small nearby museum that’s still open. Nina rushes into it, delighted to be surrounded by beauty and things she can look at, until she finds a courtyard with stone statues of children and encounters a ghost and a ghost cat.
Well, I’m calling them a ghost and a ghost cat, anyway.
The ghost in question is Dominique, a woman who lived during the Napoleonic period. Her father was executed for a murder he allegedly committed to conceal his treason against Napoleon—as Cameron describes things, no one in Napoleonic France messes around. Dominique is convinced that her father is innocent, and wants Nina to prove it.
Exactly how Nina is supposed to this is an open question, given that she’s socially awkward, fairly ignorant about French history, and still fairly young—old enough to be hired for a part time job at the museum, but no more than that, and the job itself is very clearly more of an internship/training job given to her by people wanting to encourage her career plans to become a curator, or at least make sure that Nina knows what she’s in for. But her time at the museum does introduce her to people and things that can help solve the mystery—not to mention helping to guide her to a new, more pleasant apartment where she and her family can live—and allows her to spend more time talking with the maybe-ghost.
The Court of the Stone Children is usually described as a time travel story, but I’m not sure that’s a valid description. Yes, several characters seem a bit obsessed with time and the idea of travelling back and forth through it—Gil even plans to write a book about Time one day, a very long one. But all of the trips, forward and backwards, have a certain dreamlike aspect to them, and the book as a whole seems more focused on the fragility of the border between reality and dreams than the idea of traveling through time.
Partly this is because much of the book appears to have been inspired by Surrealist paintings, particularly the work of Marc Chagall, discussed by the characters.
TOTAL SIDENOTE: When I first read this book back in the 1980s I had to imagine what this painting looked like in my own little head. In retrospect I realize that I probably could have hunted down an art history book and found a reproduction, but that never occurred to me at the time, and so the painting was just in my mind. And in any case, that would have required another trip to the library and a lot of searching. These days, you can go to Google or Bing and type in “Chagall Time River” and get about 15 images of this painting, if in slightly different shades, absolutely none of which match the image that the book’s description put into my little head. I’m honestly not sure if this is good or bad. On the whole, with this book, I’d say good: the Chagall painting is referenced frequently, and its meditation on dream versus reality underlies the book, something that becomes clearer if a reader can look at the painting. That said, I liked this book much more when I was a kid than I do now, despite knowing nothing about the painting. Maybe the internet isn’t perfection after all.
Anyway, within the book, the painting represents the fragility of time, and the way dreams can touch both past and future—as they do for Nina, at least. But that in turn says more about dreams than about time, which gets only the vaguest of non-scientific discussion here.
Not to mention that for a book supposedly about time travel, it really doesn’t have all that much time travel. Sure, it does have a supposed time traveler, Dominique. But, as I noted, Dominique seems to be less a time traveler, and more a ghost with a ghost cat. In classic ghost story style, Dominique’s initial appearances terrify Nina; her later casual statement that after she died giving birth to her third child she used to roam the halls of her chateau is both disturbing and distinctly, well, ghostlike. A later incident strongly suggests that neither Dominique nor Nina has travelled through time; rather, Dominique’s spirit has occasionally possessed Nina. Which, again, is a touch more ghost like than time travel like.
The ghost explanation also helps to explain the language issues: Nina speaks English and, at the beginning of the book, almost no French; Dominique speaks French, although it’s not quite clear—at first—what language she is speaking with Nina. And why Dominique can’t touch Nina, and why Nina can see the two cats—one from the past, one from the present—one of them is a ghost cat. And it also helps explain why Nina seems so driven to solve the mystery: again, she is possessed.
So I’m going with ghost story, even if, at the end, the answer to the mystery is found in very real objects: a diary and a painting (not the Chagall one) and confirmed in a decidedly mundane way: by X-ray. And even if many of the characters are studying time and physics, and are convinced that Nina’s experience proves something about the fluid nature of time.
Reading this book, I almost found it hard to believe that this book was written by the same person who wrote the Mushroom Planet books. Where those books had focused on boys and sidelined women, the main characters in The Court of the Stone Children are all girls and women, with the women holding down skilled, professional jobs. Where the first few Mushroom Planet books had been joyful romps, this book is almost sedate. Where the Mushroom Planet books leapt from place to place, this book is solidly and carefully plotted. And although for many reasons I could never quite bring myself to believe in the Mushroom Planet books, Nina is so confident that she has really met someone from the Napoleonic era that for a moment I want to believe it too.
But one thing does connect this book to the earlier series: the importance of faith and belief—and the way that same faith and belief allows the characters to accomplish things. Like David of the Mushroom Planet books, Nina is a dreamer. Her dreams may be more realistic and centered, but they are still dreams she believes in, and this is a book about making them work.
One small warning: for a book so filled with strong and distinct women characters, in the first few pages a boy asks Nina why she would even want to be a curator:
“Women can, I suppose. I mean there’s no law against it—only it’s queer you should think of it.”
Well, kid, since as it turns out you know a woman curator quite, quite, well, it’s queer you should be questioning it. Anyway, to counter this, other characters in the book—of both genders—are more than supportive of Nina’s career goals, offering her specific advice and skills training, telling her what languages she will need to learn and encouraging her to study chemistry and other things. It’s also a nice reminder that goals take some work to reach—but can be reached. In that sense, it’s a very affirming book.
Mari Ness likes Chagall’s work in stained glass more than his paintings. She lives in central Florida.