Recent Reading: A Diamond in the Window by Jane Langton

Okay, so this little book has been sitting on my coffee table for a while. I finally read it this past weekend. I think I was looking for something (a) short, and (b) as far as possible from grimdark. If those two criteria were what I had in mind, then boom, nailed it.

So this is a young MG story. I don’t have a particularly clear notion about how to judge reading level, but offhand I’d say that this story, A Diamond in the Window, would be about right for eight- to ten-year-old children, though certainly older readers may well enjoy it. It’s a very simple story with a set of interlocking problems our young protagonists need to solve.

Edward and Eleanor are living with their hardworking Aunt Lily and her brother, their nutty Uncle Freddy, and there’s a serious threat that they may soon lose the house. More importantly, long ago, their aunt and uncle had two young siblings, Ned and Nora, who vanished mysteriously. A young foreign gentleman was staying with the family at the time and also vanished, after leaving a puzzle etched into the glass of the uppermost attic room’s window. Our two young protagonists want to solve the puzzle, find hidden treasure to save the house, and also find the children who vanished long ago.

So that’s the frame story: a series of adventures following the riddles laid out in the puzzle game. Chapters dealing with ordinary life alternate with adventures, which gradually become more overtly dangerous and the children realize they’re working against an enemy. Can they find the long-vanished children? Was the foreign gentleman a good guy, courting Aunt Lily and fond of the children; or was he a bad guy? The reader isn’t going to find this much of a puzzle. This is the story where everyone who seems like a good person is a good person; there’s not a lot of subtlety, though there are questions about exactly what happened.

This story takes place in Concord, Massachusetts, and Henry Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Lousia May Alcott are all strongly present in the story, which includes lots of literary references and snatches of poetry. Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul / As the swift seasons roll! Leave thy low-vaulted past! / Let each new temple, nobler than the last, / shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast / till thou at length art free / leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!  This is pretty snazzy in a story aimed at ten-year-old readers. I would have loved it when I was ten and I liked it now.

Also, A Diamond in the Window wraps around Christmas, and while it’s not centered on Christmas, I hereby declare it is close enough to a Christmas story that if you would like to read a short, charming Christmas story this month, here you go.

The story is unabashedly and thoroughly positive in its themes and imagery. It’s a little dated – it was first published in 1962 – but actually, it’s about old enough that it just comes across as historical rather than contemporary. If you remember E Nesbit’s stories fondly, then I expect you’d enjoy this story as well; if you’re giving Nesbit’s stories to a young reader, you can certainly add this to the stack because it will fit right in.

Now I kind of want to go reread something by Edith Nesbit. Did you realize her books are literally over a hundred years old now? Five Children and It was published in 1902, The Phoenix and the Carpet in 1904, The Story of the Amulet in 1906. That seems just remarkable. I bet Jane Langdon read Nesbit’s works and was inspired by them.

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3 thoughts on “Recent Reading: A Diamond in the Window by Jane Langton”

  1. Amazon thinks it’s for ages 8-11, so your guess is pretty close to theirs, at least.

    Since E Nesbit’s stuff is all old enough to be public domain, if I’m in the mood for a children’s fantasy of this sort I am probably more likely get one of hers from Gutenberg or spend 99c for the E Nesbit Megapack. Or, hmm, somebody else has done a more complete Nesbit collection for $2.99 ; I didn’t know she wrote for adults as well as children.

  2. I remember liking it enough as a child to go on to the sequels, but I also remember a sense that there was something missing from all of them. And when I revisited them a few years back they struck me as awfully cold, somehow. Still, they worked for me (and the Teen) once, so probably worth a look.

    I also got a chuckle when I read a memoir by Rebecca Harding Davis (mother of Richard Harding Davis) who lived in the Concord area and knew Thoreau, Alcott and the others. She had a very different take than the hagiographic one in these. I remembered the one, and enjoyed the contrast.

    Here’s a bit:
    That was the first peculiarity which struck an outsider in Emerson, Hawthorne, and the other members of the ” Atlantic ” coterie; that while they thought they were guiding the real world, they stood quite outside of it, and never would see it as it was. … Mr. Alcott once showed me an arbor which he had built with great pains and skill for Mr. Emerson to ” do his thinking in.” It was made of unbarked saplings and boughs, a tiny round temple, two storied, with chambers in which were seats, a desk, etc., all very artistic and complete, except that he had forgotten to make any door. You could look at it and admire it, but nobody could go in or use it. It seemed to me a fitting symbol for this guild of prophets and their scheme of life.

    Or this snippet about Louisa Alcott During my first visit to Boston in 1862, I saw at an evening reception a tall, thin young woman standing alone in a corner. She was plainly dressed, and had that watchful, defiant air with which the woman whose youth is slipping away is apt to face the world which has offered no place to her. Presently she came up to me,
    ” These people may say pleasant things to you,” she said abruptly; “but not one of them would have gone to Concord and back to see you, as I did to-day. I went for this gown. It’s the only decent one I have. I ‘m very poor; ” and in the next breath she contrived to tell me that she had once taken a place as ” second girl.” ” My name,” she added, ” is Louisa Alcott.”

  3. Yep, Elaine, that’s certainly not remotely hagiographic! I kinda love the idea of the writing arbor that could not be entered.

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