By Sharon Cameron
Available now from Scholastic Press
THE DARK UNWINDING won the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrator's Sue Alexander Award for Most Promising New Work in 2009. Now, in 2012, everyone can read Sharon Cameron's debut and judge it for themselves.
Katherine Tulman is a young orphan living with her penny-pinching Aunt Alice and cousin Robert. Then news comes that her uncle might be insane and squandering Robert's inheritance. Katherine is dispatched through the moors to Stranwyne, the family estate, in order to bear witness against her uncle and have him institutionalized. But there she finds a village of hundreds supported by Mr. Tully's inventions, all of them hostile to her since she's there to eliminate their jobs. But if Katherine doesn't ensure biddable young Robert's inheritance, there will be nothing and no one to support her after her aunt's death. She can only protect the inhabitants of Stranwyne if she sacrifices her own future.
THE DARK UNWINDING is a terrific Gothic novel. There are mysterious noises and strange happenings. Katherine might be insane herself. She's surrounded by people with secrets and agendas who seek to heighten her confusion. There are two boys, one studious, one unsuitable. There's a mute little boy with a rabbit who may be trying to warn Katherine of danger. There's a cook who can't be trusted. And there's nutty Uncle Tully, with his wondrous and futuristic inventions, including clockwork replicas of the dead.
My main complaint about THE DARK UNWINDING is that the middle sags a little. Katherine's inner conflict over whether and what to report to her aunt goes on and on. She can't see a solution, but she's just too caring to ever convince the reader that she'd throw Stranwyne under the bus to save herself. Yes, nine hundred people's lives hang in the balance, but there's very little tipping back and forth of the scales. (Mary Brown, who becomes Katherine's maid, sensibly ignores Katherine
when she talks about putting Mr. Tully away. Mary knows what's what.) It's not till the last third of the book that something happens to raise the stakes.
THE DARK UNWINDING is for fans of Gothic novels, with their blending of creepy atmosphere, suspense, and romance. THE DARK UNWINDING is being presented as steampunk, but I wouldn't give it that label. Uncle Tully's gasworks are certainly more advanced than what actually existed during the Napoleonic wars, but that doesn't the setting a past powered by steam. It's more a quirky, almost magical-realist detail. The romance angle is being pushed hard too, but this really is Katherine's story. She must decide who she is and who she wants to be and forge the future of Stanwyne accordingly. She's a heroine to admire.