Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game is one of my all-time favorite books, and one of the books in contention for the most number of readings award on my bookshelf. Recently, I realized I haven’t read anything else written by Raskin so I decided to mooch a copy of Figgs and Phantoms. I read this a few months ago and was waiting to read a book I could match with it for a thematic review, but I don’t think that will happen soon, so here I am reviewing it solo.
Figgs and Phantoms won the Newbery Honor in 1975 before Westing Game won the Newbery Medal in 1979.
Mona Lisa Figg Newton is miserable in a family of nutty folk, including her mom, Sister Figg Newton, is a tap dancer and baton twirler; her uncle Truman is a human pretzel and part-time signmaker who can’t get his signs right (always a single misprinted letter!); and her aunt Gracie Jo, a dog catcher with two kids: Fido (a dog) and Fido the Second (not a dog).
Mona is at odds with everyone except for her book dealer uncle Florence Italy Figg, with whom Mona shares a passion for books. However, Uncle Florence is getting ready to leave for Capri, the life-goal of all Figgs, and Mona is doing all she can to delay Uncle Florence’s departure.
I had a hard time getting through this book, because it was quite different from The Westing Game. It had Raskin’s trademark offbeat characters, but it was not the mystery I expected, but more of a psychological fantasy.
Capri, it turns out, is where Figgs go after they die, like some sort of heaven. Uncle Florence dies, and Mona misses him so terribly that she wants to find Capri to be with her uncle again. It’s a unique theme for a book written in the 70s but I’m not sure young readers will be able to grasp the concept of death and afterlife in such abstract concepts.
I do like that this book zeroes in on the love for books shared by Mona and Uncle Florence, and especially loved their tradition of book-hunting disguised as the Figg-Newton Giant (the midget Uncle Florence balanced on Mona’s gangly shoulders) so they could reach the top shelves of Ebenezer Bargain’s book shop, where the prized volumes were kept.
It’s interesting to note that Raskin was also an illustrator, and she illustrated Uncle Truman’s erroneous signs herself!
Ellen Raskin wrote 16 children’s books and illustrated covers for dozens of others (including some Madeleine L’Engles) before she passed away in 1984. I hope I find some of her other books!
Figgs and Phantoms, paperback, 3/5 stars
Book #85 for 2010