I didn’t know it was possible. I mean, really, it shouldn’t be physically possible for me to simultaneously love and hate something this much. But Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children has done it. And since I intend to enumerate the reasons for both my boundless adoration and my untethered fury you should be aware that spoilers shall follow.
I suppose I should start by saying that this is an amazing book.
How amazing? Let me tell you. I picked up this book in the book section of the Walmart were I work on my lunch break. I cracked open the first page, and the next thing I knew I was sitting cross-legged on a bag of dog food in the pet department wishing I could put off clocking back in for just five more minutes.
The story begins with a boy named Jacob recounting the tales of wonder his grandfather used to spin about the magical place where he spent his childhood, an enchanted estate where the “peculiar children” could go to hide from the “monsters”. Of course as Jacob grows older he comes to realize that the peculiar children his grandfather told him about weren’t really magical, and that the monsters were the human kind.
Or were they?
Really, the magic of this book is contained in those three little words. Or were they. Were the peculiar children nothing more than displaced Jews, and the monsters nothing more than Nazis? Were the pictures Jacob’s grandfather shows him clever fakes or something more magical? Is the monster Jacob see’s just before his grandfather’s death real, or nothing more than the product of a fevered imagination?
For Ransom Riggs it seems the wonder is in the wondering, in following the clues of the mystery to far and distant places to see what the truth might really hold.
The problem is that the search for answers ends halfway through the book. Everything is revealed, nearly all the questions answered. And from that point on, Jacob enters the strange and wonderful world of the peculiar children themselves.
I say, strange and wonderful, because in theory those things should be true. There should be something amazing about a boy with bees inside of him, something unnerving about a child who can remove the heart from an animal and bestow its life into something inanimate.
But somehow Ransom Riggs manages to write these things not with a sense of wonder, but rather with the drudgery of the mundane. The eponymous home for peculiar children holds nothing more than novelties, mere trinkets of awe that do a poor job of taking the place of the all-encompassing mystery that defined the first half of the book.
But that is not the worst. Not by far. For this book to have devolved from something amazing into nothing more than a magical adventure story, it might have been forgiven. But the crime it commits in the end is so heinous, so unthinkable that it has nearly sent me into fits of rage over the last few days just thinking about it.
What is this crime against the laws of literary justice? It can be summed up in a single name: Miss Peregrine.
Miss Peregrine, the titular matron of the home for peculiar children, is the living embodiment of well-meaning evil. Her crime is nothing less than stealing the lives of her peculiar children, keeping them hidden from the world and keeping the world hidden from them. She has created a loop in time, a single day repeating itself over and over, while the rest of the world marches on. In order to keep her charges from wandering out into the rest of the world she has censored their knowledge of the future to include only the worst things. In the face of forces that would like to destroy her and her charges she has done nothing to prepare them for the battle. In short she is the epitome of protective parenting, the embodiment of the philosophy that children should be shielded from any and all adversity without ever being trained to fight the very real battles the world will throw at them.
But somehow Ransom Riggs has gotten it into his head that she is one of the good guys. The obvious monsters, the ones with rotting black skin and ten foot long tentacle tongues, those are of course dispatched with gleeful violence. Never mind that the self-righteous Miss Peregrine is the children’s sole source of information about the monsters, the one who has described them as being literally soulless.
Of course, we all know that it’s perfectly fine to murder people that don’t look like us as long as the powers that be assure us that they have no souls.
So now you understand my dilemma. There is so much to love about this book. The creepy vintage photographs woven more or less seamlessly into the story, the mounting tension built in the first half of the book, the deft use of language…
But there is also so much to hate.
If you haven’t read the book yet, I can’t tell you whether you should. Perhaps you can be more tolerant of its failures, more forgiving of its mistakes than I. But perhaps you will find yourself as I find myself, pouring back over the story in your mind, sifting through the missed opportunities with mounting outrage.
Only time can tell.