Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Out of step with the century: a review of Sanctuary, a moody YA ghost story

In this moody historical ghost story, nearly everything – the house at its center, the characters, their relationships – feels slightly out of step with the real world. McKissack has successfully infused her debut novel with the Gothic-ness the genre requires.

Cecilia Cross, an introspective 17-year-old, tells us her former classmates found her odd: “Maybe the sea, something to do with being from an island… you seem like you’re from someplace else.” After her boarding school tuition is abruptly cut off following her Aunt Laura’s death, Cecilia returns home to Sanctuary, an immense 18th-century mansion on a windswept Maine isle. Ten years earlier, following the ’29 crash, Cecilia’s father committed suicide; five years afterward, her older sister and grandmother died in a fire, and her mother was placed in an asylum. Numerous misfortunes are piled upon our heroine’s shoulders.

Cecilia finds herself dependent on her unstable, cruel uncle, who wants her gone. Eli Bauer, a young professor on site to study Sanctuary’s extensive book collection, seems her only hope, and they spend time exploring the island’s graveyards and wild regions, slowly falling in love in the process. There are many unsettling presences, though, ones that Cecilia can sense. They draw her into a whirlwind of mystery and tragedy involving the Acadians’ expulsion from Nova Scotia two centuries earlier.

This sorrowful episode, and Cecilia’s ties to it, is fascinating to explore, but it takes a long time for the plot strands to come together. The larger issue, though? Cecilia’s nearly an adult, in 1939, with no apparent plans for her future nor means to support herself. She wanders around a lot while others handle the daily chores. And the family supposedly isn’t wealthy anymore; one wonders how a mansion of Sanctuary’s size stays running. Recommended for YA and adult readers wanting to indulge in Gothic atmosphere without worrying about practicalities.


Jennifer McKissack's Sanctuary was published by Scholastic last September in hardcover ($17.99, 306pp), and this review also appears in the Historical Novels Review's February reviews.  The novel shows promise, although I had been hoping for more complete world-building.  Judging by other reviews I've read, my reaction is unusual.  This is a Gothic tale that, for me, would have worked better if set in an earlier time when finding a worthy husband was a young woman's single-minded goal. But, set in 1939, the story didn't work for me as much as I'd hoped.  Like Da Vinci's Tiger, this is also a YA historical novel, and the pair make for a study in contrasts.


  1. Anonymous8:19 AM

    Interesting analysis, Sarah. I don’t read much YA, but you’ve made me want to read this one, if only to study the atmosphere and the aspects you’ve parsed out as not quite working. Funny how some readers are not at all bothered by a lack of realistic world-building, and others keenly feel its absence. I tend to fall into the latter group, as long as the elements the writer chooses are not dull. It takes skill to select and show the 'timely' activities.

    1. I agree, Cynthia. Maybe the author felt that adding too much "real world" detail would detract from the mysterious aspect, but I read a lot in this genre and noticed its lack. I would be interested to hear if you or anyone else who reads the novel comes to the same conclusions that I did. Those who appreciate Gothic atmosphere above all else clearly weren't bothered.