Beware the historic preservationists!

Posted on December 29, 2007 under kidlit

Adrienne Kress, Alex and the Ironic Gentleman (Weinstein Books, 2007)

I had thought that, unlike librarians, local history folks didn’t have any real stereotypes to combat, that we suffered from obscurity rather than an image problem.  But here comes Alex and the Ironic Gentleman, a swashbuckling middle-grade fantasy, to prove me wrong.  Shushing is nothing to the fear that you’re going to kidnap people and make them give you foot massages.

Alex lives above her uncle’s doorknob shop and attends the prestigious Wigpowder-Steele Academy.  But trouble arrives in the form of thugs searching for her beloved sixth-grade teacher, Mr. Underwood, who is actually the heir to the fortune of the Infamous Pirate Wigpowder.  The treasure map is hidden in the historic Steele mansion, administered by the Daughters of the Founding Fathers’ Preservation Society, a group of brilliantly-named malevolent museum ladies.  They capture Alex when she crosses the red rope into an off-limits section of the mansion.

You know those doors in public places that read Staff Only or Restricted, Authorized Personnel Only?  Well, I’ve always imagined that behind those doors are Joys Beyond Your Wildest Imaginings…So despite feeling slightly anxious as to what was going to happen to her, Alex couldn’t help being kind of excited…

She needn’t have been.

The mansion has a “horrible, musty smell” and the Daughters (only five of them, true to life in that at least) have yellowing dentures, wheeze, laugh witchily, drink the wine from the historic wine cellars, manhandle Alex and force her to serve wine and give them foot massages (their feet are disgusting), and are generally caricatures of disgusting old ladies.  They do bully the pirates, though.

The book is a charming picaresque, though the world is not extremely coherent, with movie-star cephalopods, a kind refrigerator, an suspiciously endless party on a train, a bar called The Gangrene run by a dentists’ daughter, and of course, the titular pirate ship, the Ironic Gentleman, all co-existing in the story.  The narration has a Lemony Snicket tone to it. Through her entire journey, Alex is pursued by the Daughters of the Founding Fathers’ Preservation Society, who, though irredeemably evil, show themselves to be resourceful, indefatigable and dogged in their desire to make Alex pay for crossing the red velvet rope (and get the treasure for themselves).  But despite the various murders, tortures, and daring escapes, the book wasn’t super emotionally compelling (Alex is a bit of a Mary Sue)—except, of course, if you work in a historic house museum, in which case you’ll be filled with crusading desire to prove to the world that local history folks can be under eighty and a force for good in the world.

2 Comments on “Beware the historic preservationists!”

  1. Oh, Suzanne! Local history folks have tons of stereotypes to battle. We’re hysterical – throwing ourselves in front of every wrecking ball in order to save every scrap heap of a building. We’re old fuddy-duddies with blue hair and tennis shoes. But, perhaps the biggest misconception is that we sit around doing nothing all day. Okay, maybe we dust the artifacts once in a while, in between reading a romance novel and saying “hi” to the folks who drop by. My daughter talked to a young man who had heard my logging presentation and he told her that I had the easiest job in the world. She immediately rushed to my defense (bless her soul!), ticking off the books I’d worked on, the website I’d built and the multitude of other things I’ve done on my job. (All of our staff work this hard.) After 11-plus years of work, I hope my logging tour looks easy. It’s hard to combat the stereotypes in people’s minds, but we keep trying.

  2. Oh my gosh, I just stumbled across your blog through a random googling incident, and it just so happens that I am reading this book right now and laughing hysterically at the Preservation Society. How serendipitous!

    Anyway, I’m a public-history-obsessed recent college grad, busily looking for that first job in the museum world, and I think we should be friends. Awkward internet friends, at least! So I’m leaving you my facebook link, if you’re so inclined. Cheers!

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