A review by Joey Madia
Let’s face it: we are all in need of some new and different heroes.
With the recent success of Millie Bobby Brown as Enola Holmes—sister of Sherlock and Mycroft—on Netflix, it could be that the next big thing in inspiring role models is a young girl armed with a keen imagination, broad knowledge, an adventurous spirit, and a flair for story (think Greta Thunberg).
All of these boxes are checked by Ann Harth’s delightful character, Bernice Rose Peppercorn, as they were “back in the day” by Charles Schulz’s Lucy, Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking, and Judy Blume’s Sheila the Great.
Bernice, a journaler and fledgling writer, is also a fan of a big-time celebrity who lives near her, Crystal Bell, who makes action adventures with a hint of mystery, with titles like Murder in Mumbai. The inciting incident is when Miss Bell’s house is robbed.
Bernice is armed with her notebook, in which she makes entries—with her Crystal Bell–headed pencil—throughout the story on everything from general observations to fabulously crafted reasons why one of her characters lost her leg, to reminders on the Dos and Don’ts of baking—including reading the instructions.
Being a fan and even a writer of mysteries, Bernice is always on the lookout for suspicious activity. And one thing we all know is that, if you go looking for suspicious activity… it will Abound.
Her Walty Mitty–esque over-imagination drives the narrative, lacing it with humor and “Oh, Bernice… really?” moments as she makes her way through her days, navigating her mother and brother Jake and the neighbors. One of the “Oh Bernice” moments that hit closest to home for me was the imaginary “Miss Posy”—her face formed from the cracks in the light green paint on Bernice’s bedroom wall. She also sees a variety of characters in the wood of the local wharf.
The technical term is pareidolia, but, among us dreamers, it’s just value added to life.
I don’t want to give anything away, but Bernice, through assuming that every odd activity or stranger she sees indicates some kind of dangerous or illegal chicanery or major event, has become very familiar to the local police.
To Bernice’s credit, when she makes mistakes, she makes notes in her journal to keep them from happening again (“Small box with antenna—NOT necessarily a detonator for a bomb”).
Trying to emulate her movie star hero, Bernice abides by Crystal’s motto: Peace when possible. That statement leaves plenty of room for action—and who better to engage in some adventure with than an old sea salt with a peg leg who lives in an old fishing boat by the docks? Ike serves as the requisite adult mentor in the story, and Harth has crafted him as a complex, yet accessible character. Perfect for Bernice and young readers. It is also an opportunity for young readers to learn how to navigate difference. Bernice—who goes to great lengths in her efforts to not make Ike feel self-conscious about his wooden leg—is both surprised and relieved when he gives her some very sound advice about directness.
Ike’s old boat is called The Mighty One. Given that Che Guevara’s beat up and not fit for the road motorcycle in his early days also had that name (in Spanish, La Poderosa), I wonder if Harth did this on purpose. Either way, the irony of the name is an extra layer in their adventure.
Like Sherlock Holmes, Bernice has a love of chemistry (for both topical medicine and baking) and as a not so masterful master-of-disguise (the author enlisted her family for experimentation with some of this) she does her best in the face of what others might call failure, but I call part of fully living your life.
Especially when there is a mystery nearby calling Bernice’s name…
Harth’s glimpse into the writer’s process through Bernice is a wonderful aspect of this book. Incorporating real-life places and versions of real-life people is just one of the excellent bits of advice. Another is finding the limits of imagination—when does it get us into trouble? Finally—we can experience, on some of level (without putting ourselves or others in danger or breaking the law, of course) what some of the situations in which we put are characters are like. Creatives call this the “What if?” or “As if.”
Using the “What if?” or “As if” in your daily life helps with everything from problem solving to empathy. It’s a great skill for anyone to have.
It was great to learn a little about Australia through this book. I was excited to recognize the term Kombi from the old Men at Work song, “Down Under,” as in, “Traveling in a fried out Kombi…”
Knowing how much role models like Bernice are needed in the world, I hope that her adventures have only just begun.
TITLE: Bernice Takes a Plunge
AUTHOR: Ann Harth
PUBLISHER: Odyssey Books