The Plot: Cally Wood, sixteen, is a transfer student at the exclusive St. Bede’s Academy. She’s starting the middle of junior year.
Cally has a secret, one she doesn’t want her new friends to know. Ten years ago, her sister Clare disappeared. The loss devastated the family: her father died, her mother drinks, and Cally became “that girl,” the girl whose sister went missing. Cally doesn’t want to be “that girl.” Especially at St. Bede’s. Because it was at St. Bede’s that Clare went missing from her bed, the night of a terrible fire. Clare was visiting a friend, and both she and the other girl were never seen again. Everyone believes they died in that fire.
At St. Bede’s, Cally struggles to find her place among groups of friends that have already formed. It’s hard to be a new girl, especially one that has started mid-year. Along the way, she keeps hearing about Iris, a girl who ran away in the fall. The girl who used to sleep in her dorm room.
Cally suspects that Iris didn’t run away. There are campus rumors that Iris was murdered. As Cally realizes that the rumors may be true, she also begins to wonder — could what happened to Iris be connected to what happened to Clare?
It’s Good: I love mysteries. This is a great dual mystery (what happened to Iris? what happened to Clare?) as well as the additional question of whether these two disappearances are linked. St. Bede’s is physically remote; it also bans cell phones and has very limited Internet. In addition to putting certain limitations on how and when people discover information (for example, Cally can’t just do an Internet search on Iris or Clare or other things), it means The Little Woods is a variation of the country house mystery, where the physical location of a crime creates a very closed pool of suspects. An assumption that somehow Clare’s and Iris’s disappearances are linked closes that circle even more. For me, at least, that meant that The Little Woods became not so much a who-done-it but a why-did-they-do-it.
I love boarding school stories — love, love, love. One thing I like about Cally at Boarding School is she is such a slacker. She repeatedly shares how lazy she is. She tests well without studying much and likes it that way. Why, then, St. Bede’s? Bluntly, it’s an escape, more a running away than a running to something. Yes, Cally realizes that she it also means the chance to get into a better college, and perhaps find out more about Clare’s disappearance, but her primary motivation is that she’s not at home. This motivation (and lack of motivation about other things) explains why Cally seems to be such a slacker once she is actually at St. Bede’s. And it explains why she doesn’t hit St. Bede’s running, either as a student or as detective. Cally is not Veronica Mars at Boarding School.
That Cally is not Veronica Mars is part of the reason I really liked her. Yes, she’s smart. Yes, she’s curious about what happened to Iris. Yes, she wants to know what really happened to Clare, torn between believing Clare died in the fire or that something else happened. But she’s also trying to get along with her roommate, making friends, maybe even a boyfriend. Cally’s investigation doesn’t really begin until a body is found in the woods near the school (the “little woods of the title”)
I loved how Clare was her own person, with a combination of not caring what other people think and not thinking about other people. Part of it is being shy; part of it is not knowing the social codes at her new school.
Here’s what I mean: Cally’s first day of her new school. “I brushed my teeth, pulled on a black T-shirt and my shorts even thought I knew it was too cold for them. Somehow I’d already managed to lose my brush.” Or, here when a bunch of her friends are headed to the local town on a free Saturday: “It wasn’t exactly like I’d been excluded, but I hadn’t been invited either. Did everyone need an invitation, or was that just me? Was I socially reticent to the point of phobia? Would a different girl simply have invited herself along?”
One last thing: while there is a whisper that the disappearances may have an “other” explanation — the book jacket reads, “unexplained disappearances. suspicious deaths. there’s something wrong with the woods behind St. Bede’s Academy” this is not a “the fairies did it” book. Sorry if that’s a spoiler, but much as I enjoy a good mash-up, I like a mystery to be a mystery with the answer not to be fairies or ghosts or time loops. Usually (but not always) that is a short cut to a logical explanation.
Ok, now the really last thing. I loved the language in The Little Woods. The writing just, well, made me happy. Funny and observant and smart. A bit selfish, because she is sixteen. “I didn’t have tons of experience with team sports. I enjoyed watching them on TV with [my cousin] Danny, and i wasn’t exactly bad at them, but my phenomenal laziness had prevented me from excelling at any.” “The awful thing was that despite the genuine horror in the auditorium that morning, an overwhelming atmosphere of excitement accompanied it. A few girls started crying, but it was immediately clear that they were not supposed to, and they worked to staunch the flow. There was danger in unrestrained outbursts of emotion.”
Bottom line? It’s a Favorite Book Read in 2013.