Max Starling’s father and mother love acting. They even turn a simple breakfast into a theatrical scene as they assume roles and await cues. For the most part, Max humors them. He may sometimes grow impatient with their dramatics, but his world revolves around his beloved parents. Thus, when they are invited to go on an acting tour of India, he is excited to learn that he will be able to accompany them, helping with sets, props and other minor tasks.
Max arrives at the dock to meet Mr. and Mrs. Starling on the Flower of Kashmir nearly an hour before the ship’s scheduled departure. The harbormaster tells him that no such ship has been berthed at this port, but gives Max a mysterious note from his father. Max heads to his grandmother’s house in utter confusion. How could his parents leave him? Why doesn’t his father’s message seem genuine? Max and Grammie suspect foul play, but decide not to report anything to the authorities until they have more information. In the meantime, Max must find employment to supplement Grammie’s meager librarian’s income. For a twelve-year-old this is not easy, but Max has not lived with professional actors all his life without learning a trick or two of the trade.
Cynthia Voigt’s latest, a first in a trilogy, demonstrates that young protagonists can be innocent but not naïve. Max experiences what so many children his age do: a desire to be independent while still requiring (and wanting) adult guidance. Max previously had that innocuously conspiratorial relationship with Grammie that children and grandparents treasure. Once his father and mother disappear, their friendship matures. As Max discovers and develops his own strengths, Grammie treats Max more as an adult, and Max considers his grandmother’s needs. In fact, Max takes into account the rights of everyone he encounters, even those who are not particularly likable. Hiring himself out to solve other people’s problems, Max does not grasp at the quickest, easiest answers, but waits patiently for the solution that conforms to his sense of justice for all concerned. Thus he grows in self-confidence and respect for the talents of others.
Voigt stretches readers’ minds with sophisticated vocabulary and multiple subplots. Adults may discern connections between characters early in the story, but seemingly unimportant details should challenge most young readers. Paul Boehmer has recorded a truly entertaining version of the book on CD which captures the personalities of all the story’s characters. Young people who want to believe that even someone their own age could, occasionally, do something extraordinary will anxiously await the next installment of Max’s adventures.
Jennifer Minicus is a mother and teacher living in Ridgewood, NJ.