Since we’ve enjoyed books and audiobooks by Avi so much, Nick and I picked up another audiobook at the library. This one is The Seer of Shadows, a novel set just after the Civil War, when slaves had just been freed and photography was still new. The main character, Horace, is apprenticed to a photographer who is lazy and unethical–and looking for shortcuts to make money. Mr. Middleditch thinks he can superimpose images of his customer’s recently deceased daughter onto the customer’s portrait, using photos that Horace takes of paintings with a “spy camera.” This will certainly make the customer anxious for additional photos, he thinks. But the story turns on Horace and his employer; is it a “real” spirit that Horace accidentally photographs?
Not strictly a historical novel as some of Avi’s other books, Seer nonetheless benefits from Avi’s fine eye and ear for historic authenticity. The story is partly revealed by conversations between young Horace and his new acquaintance Peg, the African American servant girl who befriends him when her mistress commissions a portrait of herself. Horace, raised to believe in equality and rationality, has an unusual-for-that-time egalitarian friendship with Peg, creating a nice opportunity for reader discussion about race and equality during the Antebellum period.
Avi also does a wonderful job of describing the magic of photography and glass plate negative development and printing, reminding us of the technology that preceded digital cameras. We’ve thus talked about how today’s advanced technology might seem to people a hundred years from now, and how technology that seems archaic today once had magical qualities for those who didn’t understand it. That’s what Horace’s employer hopes to take advantage of in the story.
We’ve not finished the book, but I note that online book discussions include references to this book being too scary for sensitive young readers under nine or so, and some parents may have objections to a book that involves spirits. We’ve not gotten far enough to evaluate how these things are presented, but Nick’s not that sensitive or that young to be bothered by the scary stuff, and we find we can have great discussions about rationality, spirituality, and religious beliefs when we are inspired by a book to do so. The book has apparently sometimes evoked a bit of consternation when it’s required by schools; as homeschoolers, we generally try to read as many of those books as we can. Of course, I have the freedom to decide when I feel like a kid is mature enough and has the context for them.
Anyway, we love the detail and concrete writing in Avi’s books. His characters are real and often face moral dilemmas; his stories compelling and adventurous. Since we seem to keep reading his books, I sought out his website, which might give you some reading ideas for your family. There are teacher materials on his site for many of his titles, including a discussion guide for The Seer of Shadows.
Among the other books we’ve read or listened to by Avi are those in the Crispin series and the Poppy series, and Iron Thunder: The Battle Between the Monitor & the Merimac. I’ve mentioned how we’ve enjoyed Avi’s audiobooks on our soccer commutes, and I’ve already blogged about Iron Thunder here.
Waiting for us in our library bag is a bound copy of another historical fiction novel by Avi, Hard Gold: the Colorado Gold Rush of 1859. Way leads onto way.