Serafina has spent the twelve years of her life hiding in the basement of the Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Estate in Ashville, North Carolina. She realizes that she and her father are not supposed to be living there even though he works at the estate as a maintenance man. Still, she cannot help but wonder if he is not a little ashamed of her. She is different. She only has four toes on each foot, sees exceptionally well at night and has a talent for catching rats.
She might have spent her entire life in obscurity. One night, however, she discovers an evil, mysterious visitor in the estate: a dark, powerful man in a cloak who absorbs children. The entire Vanderbilt household – family, servants and guests alike – are thrown into a frenzied panic searching for the youngsters. Although her father warns her not to get involved, Serafina feels an obligation to help the children she sees disappearing. She ventures out of hiding and meets the Vanderbilts’ orphaned nephew Braeden. Braeden, like Serafina, has few friends. They decide to join forces to discover the true identity of the cloaked man. Serafina’s joy at finally having found friendship is overshadowed by the fear of discovery and the suspicion that the child the man truly wants to capture is Braeden himself.
Serafina is a truly admirable heroine, rat catching aside. She has a sense of honor and justice and is empathetic and loyal. It is odd, however, that after twelve years of isolation, she seems to relate so well to Braeden. Her obvious longing for companionship drives her out of the shadows, but she feels most at home in the nearby forest among the night prowlers. Her father eventually explains the story of her birth, confirming for Serafina that she is not completely human. As the story progresses, the history behind Serafina’s existence becomes more and more fantastic, culminating in a bizarre and poorly constructed ending to the book.
Beatty’s writing style, while fast-paced and engaging, is inconsistent with the era in which the story takes place. Surely highly educated and wealthy people like the Vanderbilts would not commit grammatical errors and use modern colloquial expressions. Nor would they decide to erect a statue in honor of the girl who saved the lives of so many children while expecting her and her father to continue to live in the boiler room of their mansion. Most notable, though, is the disturbing and violent scenes involving the man in the black cloak. This character terrifies his victims all the while telling them, “I’m not going to hurt you, child.” This may appeal to children who love creepy horror stories, but it is hard to recommend a book that may simply serve to desensitize young people.
A former teacher, Jennifer Minicus is currently a full-time wife and mother living in Ridgewood, NJ.