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June 24, 2014
Read this YA Book If…
I Capture the Castle: Charisma and Coming-of-Age
by Erin Cowles

While I’m not the kind of reader that memorizes the first lines of books, I do think that a gifted author can communicate important elements of his or her story right off the bat. With a first line like, “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink,” I knew when I picked up Dodie Smith’s YA classic, I Capture the Castle, I would be spending time with a memorable and offbeat narrator.

Yes, it is the same Dodie Smith of The Hundred and One Dalmatians fame. Who knew she was also a prolific playwright, novelist, and autobiographer? Smith wrote this book in the 1940s, after moving to America with her conscientious objector husband. She was feeling nostalgic for home, and you can feel her love of England ooze into her text.

Cassandra Mortmain lives in a castle. Sounds magical, right? It used to be, back when her father had money. Unfortunately, her father has been constitutionally incapable of producing a successor to his wildly successful literary debut, so their income is sparse, and the castle is in shambles.

While her father locks himself off in a tower to attempt to overcome his writer’s block, Cassandra, her beautiful and fiery older sister Rose, her schoolboy brother Thomas, her “artistic” stepmother Topaz, and Stephen, the handsome and fawning son of their late cook, all try to eke out enough money to provide their next meal.

Despite their dire straits, Cassandra finds joy in her attempts to hone her writing skills by keeping a journal, and in the beauty of her surroundings.

Things change when their new landlords, the wealthy Cotton family, move in up the street. Simon and Neil Cotton are young, charming, and intriguingly American. The Mortmains soon begin machinations to marry Rose into the wealthy family. Cassandra learns that love and life are complicated, and she learns to see the world’s complexity while still maintaining her hope and her integrity.

Smith’s greatest strength is Cassandra’s voice. If you don’t want to take my word for it, JK Rowling has declared her “one of the most charismatic narrators I’ve ever met.” Cassandra is lively, funny, big-hearted, and honest. You can feel her voice maturing as she comes of age and learns more about adulthood.

Smith has a gift for creating powerful visual images in this book. I’m not surprised to know that it has been made into a movie (which I haven’t seen — watching movies makes me restless). The scenes she creates are so vivid, I found myself visualizing how they would look on screen.

This book is full of great moments, whether it is ad libbing pagan springtime rites, creating a distraction by swimming in the castle’s freezing moat, or locking your father in a dungeon.

Some minor characters engage in extramarital affairs, and Cassandra’s stepmother is an artist’s model who is a bit too comfortable with her body, but there is nothing explicit in this book.

Despite its 1949 publication date, the novel doesn’t feel dated. Its atmosphere feels timeless and classic. This is a fun world to escape into.

Read this book if…

Target Audience: Girls 14+.

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