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E. L. Konigsburg – Father’s Arcane Daughter

February 9, 2011

14. Father’s Arcane Daughter by E. L. Konigsburg (1976)

Length: 118 pages
Genre: Young Adult

Started / Finished: 27 January 2011

Where did it come from? The library booksale. (Unmistakably so. It looks like a children’s librarian brought her toddler in to work and left them alone with an inkpad and variety of stamps. I count 14 various “Public Library Children’s Department” address stamps, one with the date of acquisition, and one marking it as a discard.)

Why do I have it? I read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler over and over as a kid, so when I found out that E. L. Kongisburg had other books, I bought as many as I could find.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 16 December 2006.

When Winston’s sister
comes home at last, his family
will change forever.

Summary: Winston Carmichael has not had a normal childhood – his father is one of the most wealthy men in Pittsburgh, he constantly has to take care of his developmentally delayed sister Heidi, and because since his half-sister Caroline was killed in a kidnapping before Winston was born, his overprotective parents keep him isolated from other children. All of that changes, however, when a young woman claiming to be Caroline shows up at their front door. Although she seems to be telling the truth, Winston’s not sure if they’re even actually related. But the truth is that it doesn’t really matter – even if she’s not their long-lost daughter, Caroline might just be what this family needs.

Review: Meh. While I loved From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler as a kid, I never sought out any of her other books until recently. Father’s Arcane Daughter marks the second of Konigsburg’s novels that I’ve read as an adult, and while maybe I’ve just been picking the wrong books, I’m beginning to understand why Mixed-Up Files was the only one pushed on my by the librarians of my childhood.

Part of this book's problem was that it couldn't decide what it wanted to be. For such a short book, it's a jumble of a lot of ideas: it starts out like the brother-of-a-disabled-sibling book (a la Al Capone Does My Shirts), but then strangely morphs into family mystery conspiracy, and part of the way back again. As a result, it’s not really effective at either of the genres it attempts. Kongisburg does capture Winston’s voice – hyper-educated but under-socialized – really effectively, however, and there are some nice poignant moments tossed in the mix.

I often wondered what kind of a brother I would be if I didn’t have to be the kind I was. –p. 27

My biggest problem with the book, though, was its plot, especially its ending. The whole thing lacked believable motivations, and the ending was just so facile and disappointing that it lets the rest of the book down and really turned me off. I can’t even recommend this to families of disabled children, since it sort of makes it seem like disabilities are just the result of not trying hard enough to believe the child is not disabled, and can be completely cured/reversed if you’d just bother to put the effort in. Ugh. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Pass. It’s a short and fast read, but there are other books out there that are much better at accomplishing what this book was aiming for.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Framed and Booked
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: Later – much, much later – when we both knew what we had bought and what it had cost, she said that I should tell it.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 6: “I watched Heidi smile that warm, wet, creature smile of hers, and then she larrupped away.” – to beat or thrash.

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17 Comments leave one →
  1. February 9, 2011 8:36 am

    I can’t even recommend this to families of disabled children, since it sort of makes it seem like disabilities are just the result of not trying hard enough to believe the child is not disabled, and can be completely cured/reversed if you’d just bother to put the effort in. Ugh.

    Oh, that is foul. I never read Konigsburg as a kid, but I think I’ll steer clear.

    • February 9, 2011 9:02 am

      Omni – I think what happened was that Konigsburg meant Heidi to be weird and somewhat delayed, but not actually neurologically impaired… but either she wrote it wrong or I read it wrong, because I got the impression for most of the book that Heidi was pretty severely developmentally impaired. Then, when she suddenly got better (suddenly in terms of page count; there was a throwaway line about how hard she had to work for it) just because her family stopped believing she couldn’t, it was really, really off-putting.

      From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler was a favorite as a kid, though, and is well worth your time.

  2. February 9, 2011 1:28 pm

    Sorry to see it was a stinker.

    • February 10, 2011 10:58 am

      Kathy – Aye, so am I, but it was so short that by the time I realized it wasn’t for me, I was already done with it!

  3. February 9, 2011 8:38 pm

    I have only ever read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by the author. Never had a big desire to read anything else and had forgotten about the book entirely until I read your review. Sorry it didn’t work out for you!

  4. February 9, 2011 8:57 pm

    I loved the Mixed Up Files as a kid, so sad to hear this book didn’t measure up. It does sound like an old movie with Stephanie Zimbalist called Caroline? that also seemed really intriguing but had an annoying ending.

    (Okay, I looked it up and it was based on that book! I even got the title right, but with that name, not surprisingly. What’s really odd is that Mixed Up and Jennifer, Hecate, MacBeth, William McKinley and me, Elizabeth, another book of hers I remember reading and liking, are her first two books. Father’s Arcane Daughter was written in 1976 and while not exactly recent, not the dark ages as far as disabilities went. I think.

    • February 10, 2011 11:03 am

      Carrie – There’s an author’s note in my edition that discusses the movie – I think it’s a Hallmark movie of the week? – but I haven’t seen it.

      That’s strange that her two best books (by common consensus; I haven’t read Jennifer, Hecate, etc.) are her two first ones; it seems more typical for things to be the other way ’round.

  5. Fai permalink
    February 9, 2011 9:24 pm

    This does not look like on her best books. However, you might want to give A View From Saturday a try, as it is one of her better books.

    • February 10, 2011 11:04 am

      Fai – Luckily I’ve already got that one on my shelf!

  6. February 9, 2011 10:10 pm

    Don’t give up on EL Konigsburg! I have hated some of her books (Silent to the Bone upset the hell out of me when I was fifteen), but she has some marvelous ones. Well, three marvelous ones. Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth is very good, and The View from Saturday deserves its good reputation. Promise.

    • February 10, 2011 11:05 am

      Jenny – Well, this is both good news and bad news, since the two Konigsburg books that remain on my TBR pile are The View from Saturday and Silent to the Bone. Save the best for last?

  7. February 12, 2011 4:52 pm

    Too bad this one isn’t great. I loved From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler when I was younger, as well.

    • February 17, 2011 9:24 am

      Kim – It seems like this is true for most people of our generation, but not necessarily those more than 5 or 10 years in either direction… which strikes me as weird, since it was published and won all of its awards long before we were born. I wonder if it just got really heavily pushed on grade schoolers in the late ’80s/early ’90s for some reason, or if it’s still equally popular and my perception is just wrong?

  8. February 13, 2011 9:27 pm

    The two that are still sitting on your shelves are two of my favourites as well, although I think the format of The View from Saturday makes it a lot of fun. I’ve bought that one as a gift a few times. Eventually I’d like to read all of hers, but perhaps I won’t rush for this early one…

    • February 17, 2011 9:26 am

      BiP – Good to hear about The View from Saturday! The good news about your quest to read all of her books is that this one, at least, is a very, very quick read, so even though I didn’t love it, it was over before that fact really registered.

  9. Simon french permalink
    March 25, 2011 5:30 am

    Guys – and gals – my reading of “Fathers Arcane Daughter” was that Winston’s sister Heidi was actually on the autistic spectrum, a condition possibly largely unrecognized and undiagnosed in the fifties, the story’s setting. Personally, I love this book and have re-read it many times – to myself, as well as to a few grade 5/6 classes that I’ve taught. It’s a great example of a boy’s “voice’ in a story; a voice variously of resignation, kindness, wisdom and vulnerability. And “Silent to the Bone” is a fine and compelling story, too. “The Mysterious Edge of the World” is similarly so. This lady is a seriously good author of thoughtful, substantial books for young readers. Oh and by the way – I’m a children’s author as well in my native Australia, and Ms Konigsburg has been one of my major inspirations, right from the time I first read “From the Mixed Up Files…” as an eleven year old. More power to her wise pen (or keyboard fingers!)

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