Claire Legrand’s 2012 middle grade debut has a lot to offer: The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls is as charming as it is creepy, fronted by a perfectionist protagonist who likes everything just so…and bolstered by a villain who is startlingly the same. It’s the best kind of horror––one of institutional critique––and the best kind of middle grade––one that interrogates the relationships that children have with the adults in their lives, and doesn’t emerge with complete faith in authority intact.
The eponymous Cavendish Home lies at the edge of Silldie Place, the street of none other than promising, top-of-her-class Victoria Wright. Children have been disappearing from the wealthy suburb of Belleville for some time now, with explanations that would fall apart instantly if anybody cared to poke them (only no one does). This is of little concern for Victoria, who pours herself entirely into her schoolwork and forgets the chills the Home gives her as soon as she passes it by. Her peers keep shuffling out of classes, “ill” and “visiting relatives” almost entirely outside her notice, until one day, she knocks on the door of the brilliant, musically-inclined Lawrence Prewitt, her only friend, and greets his parents in his place. Bearing too-wide, plastered-on smiles, they tell her that he’s staying with his grandmother; perfectly benign, nothing to see here, thankyouverymuch.
Here, Victoria has two options, and, wielding Victoria’s desperate need for approval and vehement distaste for breaking the rules, Legrand very nearly has us convinced that she’ll shrink to the safer one. She can either keep her suspicions to herself and go on being a model student, or she can get to the bottom of it––and, very possibly, in trouble.
One thing to note about Legrand’s setup is that it isn’t nearly as spellbinding as the payoff. Every clue advances something, from the warnings of a few adults already in the know to the ominous shuffling of roaches in every shadow, but the first act does spend some pages re-trodding old ground. There are a couple false starts where you find yourself itching for things to unravel already, only for Victoria to shy away and slip back into safety, with the unsolved mystery still in the air.
In terms of suspense, Cavendish Home has the exact opposite problem as that of Sawkill Girls, Legrand’s young adult horror from 2018, which has deliciously wicked buildup and a reveal that falls short. Ultimately, we know, by virtue of its introduction and by virtue of the title, that the Home is to blame for the disappearances, and to dance around the question at the beginning wastes valuable time that we could’ve spent reading every lurid detail of what life is like in its dastardly clutches.
Once we finally get to do so, a little later than we ought, every chapter afterwards makes it worth the wait. It’s dark and twisted, indeed; a perfectly rendered cabinet of horrors: manners classes meet torture chambers and make a fittingly terrible pair. But all the more memorable is the portrait its terrors––and its evil mistress, Mrs. Cavendish––paint of Victoria.
Victoria’s friendship with Lawrence is mired in condescension. She spends an inordinate amount of time trying to tidy his faults (à la Emma Woodhouse), with the same exacting hand that Mrs. Cavendish uses to transform petulant, rebellious, or otherwise unseemly children into the empty, well-mannered shells that leave the Home––if they leave at all. Legrand cleverly angles Victoria’s greatest weaknesses against the qualities most prized by her role models. Her obedience becomes complicity, her teacher’s-pet tendencies make her a willing victim, and her Belleville-trained tastes prevent her from seeing the corruption at work until it’s almost too late.
Those same traits, brewed in A-student insecurities, are the best-examined members in Cavendish Home‘s ensemble, complete with the details that only come from lived experience, or a close study of such: the spiral Victoria’s first B sends her into, the petty feud with the only other prospective primary school valedictorian, the way she assumes Lawrence must languish without this validation––because his parents don’t brag about him, the worst fate Victoria could imagine. Legrand, having set this up, offers Mrs. Cavendish as a stirring foil for Victoria’s tyrannical tidying, just as much of Belleville’s dark side as Victoria herself. They have some truly compelling exchanges, all of which serve to nail to book’s sharp lampoon of society’s attitudes towards children into place.
As we see in the terrifying array of Cavendish Home children with spirits beaten, unable to stand up for themselves, there’s something truly insidious in a society––not to mention an institution––that tells children they have no value, and ought to sit down, shut up, and stop causing such fuss. This story isn’t just an inspired horror with a chilling monster waiting for us at the end; it’s a necessary indictment of the adult world’s worst tendencies apropos of its fledgling members, because children taught, as they are in Belleville, to keep their heads down and their grades up grow into adults who look the other way when the minds and spirits of the next generation are sanded into oblivion.
Most scathingly of all, there was space for the monster before it settled into the well-manicured lawns of Belleville. We’ve known since the first page (but it’s only spoken outright in the stormy eleventh hour) that the Cavendish Home only churns out perfect, silent children because their parents want them.
It’s the mark of a pungent social dimension in Legrand’s writing that ––despite an ebullient triumph in the book’s final act––this eerie truth lingers, and we get no guarantee that it is gone for good.