“Follow Me Down,” “Frank and the Chamber of Fear”


“Follow Me Down,” Julie Hearn, Oxford University Publishing; July 2003; 224 pp.

Strange things are happening in the basement of an old house in East London — and not for the first time. The floor has parted, forming a kind of channel, and faces from the past are floating in it in an endless stream.

From the gap, a familiar voice is calling out — to 12-year-old Tom. It called to him when he was last here 10 years ago. Now that he’s back, the voice is, too.

Tom’s mother has cancer, and the two of them are paying a much-postponed visit to his estranged grandmother. It isn’t exactly a joyous family reunion. If this weren’t enough to make a boy Tom’s age wish he were someplace else, there is someplace else Tom is needed more — and it’s from there that the voice is calling him.

Through the gap lies early 18th-century England, the same basement, but 300 years earlier. There, a very different London exists, and locked away from it in the basement for years, is Astra.

Tom only vaguely remembers having met her before, this tiny girl barely 60 cm tall, with a body so translucent you could see her bones if you held her up to the light. Not that Astra would let anyone that close to her. She’s been hurt enough by the man who owns her, ‘Is Nibs, and his paying customers.

In the dark, sinister, penurious London that author Julie Hearn so skillfully depicts, Astra is a freak, a “changeling child.” Her friends are “monsters,” too, and they all make appearances at Bartholomew Fair to be gawped at as miracles (or freaks) of nature: There’s rubbery-limbed Malachi Twist; the part-female, part-ape Gorilla Woman; and the Giant.

The Giant’s just died, but his corpse has no hope of resting in peace — grave-robbers are about to dig it up and sell it to a money-grubbing doctor eager to dissect unusual specimens. One is the Giant, once he’s been exhumed, but the second, an undersized female, is Astra . . .

On one side of the gap, Tom must save Astra’s life; on the other, family secrets are coming between his mother and grandmother.

Hearn’s version of 18th-century London is part imaginative story-telling; part historical reality. Bartholomew Fair did exist till it was finally banned in the mid-19th century for disrupting public order. It was a venue for acrobatics, puppet performances and, yes, freak shows.

There’s nothing to suggest that Astra is really a changeling child — that is, a creature left behind by the fairies as a substitute for a human child they have stolen. But this was possibly the only way for a superstitious and intolerant society to explain the existence of a person who looked too tiny to be “normal.”

In this inventive tale of time-travel, Hearn questions our notions of the normal and the abnormal. Who are the real monsters here — Astra and her friends, or the graverobbers, monster-owners and dissection-hungry doctors?

“Follow Me Down” is the title of this book and you’ll find yourself doing so quite willingly. But where Tom must leap into the gap, all you have to do is to pick this up and read it.

For children 12 years and older. Available at online bookstores.

“Frank and the Chamber of Fear,” Livi Michael, Puffin Books; July 2003; 273 pp.

In children’s-fiction land, rodents are in. From the unassuming watchmaker Hermux Tantamoq (see columns April 17, 2003 and Oct. 11, 2002) to the feisty convict Ned (see column June 12, 2003), storytellers seem to be falling over themselves to make these four-footed fellows their heroes. Both Ned and Hermux, however, are mice that have been humanized. What this book shows us is what it’s really like to be a mouse, or a rat — or a hamster.

For Frank and his friends, being a hamster means being somebody’s house pet — cooped up in a cage for life; owned by kids who’ll only play with you until another diversion comes along; and separated from your family so that the only home you’ll ever share is the pet shop, before you’re sold off.

Sounds pretty dire, doesn’t it? To Frank, it certainly does. He longs to be free, to roam the wild outdoors, to find his roots again and to be reunited with his tribe.

His tribe? Well, if that sounds odd, it’s because we’ve stopped thinking of our pets as animals who yearn to belong — not to an owner, but to a tribe. Most of the hamsters of Bright Street have also ceased to think of themselves as animals. Being free in the wild is a terrifying prospect for them. Being pets, on the other hand, might be dull, but it’s safe.

Safe until a hamster thief breaks into most of the houses, and every hamster but Frank (who’s away with his owner on holiday) disappears. Now Frank finds himself intervening, commandolike, in a hostage situation. His friends are being held in cages. Most of them aren’t alarmed, however, because they’re pets — they’re used to being caged and fed well. But their captor is fattening them up for a reason. It’s their glossy pelts he’s after. (He thinks hamster pelts are the new ermine).

It’s up to Frank to convince them they’re in trouble and get them out. A thrilling adventure story, this book also offers a sensitive look at freedom and captivity. It’s told through hamster eyes (except, of course, that these hamsters speak English). Freedom might be an enticing ideal, but it’s not for everyone, as Frank discovers.

If you have pets at home, this view of life from a cage will make you treat them with new-found respect and empathy.