As my second middle-grade reread challenge, a book I haven’t read in years, I wasn’t entirely sure what I was getting into with this book. It’s not fantasy. An evil, egotistical genius makes a machine that can be broadcast through the television that brainwashes the general population to think there is a big Emergency from which he will ultimately rise as the savior… so it’s definitely science fiction, though of the urban variety.
Warning: spoilers abound.
The Mysterious Benedict Society, by Trenton Lee Stewart, has a very neat plot, and follows the traditional Freytag’s Pyramid. Four children are recruited by the titular Mr. Benedict to scope out the Institute for the Very Enlightened, from which the brainwashing waves are being sent out by Mr. Curtain, the antagonist. The three main bumps in tension are as follows:
- After getting recruited, the four main characters (Reynie, Sticky, Kate, and Constance) are very nearly kidnapped by Mr. Curtain’s “Recruiters” in chapter 6.
- In the middle of their reconnaissance, (chapter 23) Sticky gets caught helping one of the gang, and is sent to the disgustingly horrible Waiting Room, where everyone (including himself) is worried he will crack and spill the beans on his friends regarding the purpose of their presence at the Institute.
- Then, lastly, the gang takes on Mr. Curtain’s machine and Curtain himself in an epic battle of wits. Time has run out; if they lose, Curtain will basically take over the world.
Yet, as you can see in the tension map below, besides a few big dips, the narrative has a tidy uphill trajectory until the defeat of the antagonist, at which point the tension immediately falls as the book reaches its falling action/denouement stage.
The plot divides itself into five main pieces, each of which serve as a turning point where the stakes are raised. But, first, the main characters, to make things easier:
- Reynie Muldoon: orphan, who lives in an orphanage, under the tutelage of Miss Perumal, since he’s too smart for the lessons the other kids receive.
- Sticky Washington: runaway, who can remember things after looking at them once. His parents got too caught up with the cash that his trivia-laden brain could earn them, and he ran from them.
- Kate Wetherall: orphan, incredibly energetic, carries with her a bucket of all things useful. Lost her mother at a young age, and thought her father walked out on her. She joined a circus until she heard about Benedict’s tests.
- Constance Contraire: a young orphan, stubborn and contrary. Incredibly small. Intelligent, considering how young she’s revealed to be, though there’s a limit to what she knows.
- Mr. Benedict and Mr. Curtain: two sides of the same coin, later revealed to be twin brothers separated at birth. Both plagued by narcolepsy triggered by strong emotions, both incredibly intelligent. One is evil and one is humble.
- Milligan: a morose man in the employ of Benedict. He lost his memories and as a result is eternally sad. Very good at disguises.
The Forming of the Crew
The selection of Reynie and his friends by Mr. Benedict–and, indeed, the parallels in how Mr. Curtain chooses his favorite students–is founded on the correct assumption that most parents would get in the way. For Mr. Benedict, much as he loathes putting children in danger, he recognizes the necessity. Mr. Curtain, on the other hand, is merely taking advantage of the fact that no one will miss orphans, and that they will be so grateful to him that they will not question him and their loyalty can be easily won.
Still, Mr. Benedict recognizes the danger of the mission, and the difficulty, and thus were the Tests created. They are meant to weed out those unfit for the task at hand. Many of the trials are there to prove which children are the cleverest–as in the second test, with impossible questions that, halfway through the test, wind up answering the others. However, the kids are tested in other ways too: that they have resisted the brainwashing (as seen in their dislike of watching TV), whether or not they’re brave (asked outright in the first test), whether or not they have integrity (based on their refusal to cheat despite being offered the answers to the impossible test).
It’s an impossible series of mental (and, in some cases, physical) ways to test how well these kids might fair when facing a foe as clever and dangerous as the protagonist. Mr. Benedict’s assistants, Rhonda Kazembe and Number Two were both people who had previously passed the tests, but Benedict says Reynie and company are the first group to pass all at once. It does leave the question of whether or not Rhonda and Number Two were the only others to pass the test, and how Benedict knew the magic number of people needed in the group for it to be successful. But, regardless, all four kids are told their mission and why it’s so important, and the kids are willing to put themselves in danger, both because it was the right thing to do and because they want to be a part of something grand.
Starting at their arrival at Nomansan Island, this portion of the book details the kids’ attempts to integrate into the Learning Institute of the Very Enlightened. Their task is not clear, but the four set their focus on finding as much information as possible. They are introduced to Messengers (students like themselves who have “special privileges:” broadcasting the messages), Executives (graduated students that help Mr. Curtain), Helpers (mind-wiped adults that do all the work around the school, people who had asked too many questions and put Curtain’s plans at risk), and Recruiters (people who kidnap orphan children to add to the ranks of students).
Executives and Recruiters add to the numerous dangers the kids already face, as their loyalty is bound to Mr. Curtain. Helpers, however, are another piece of the puzzle, and explain what Curtain’s plans are for those, like Benedict, his helpers, and the kids, who are people who reject the mind-controlling messages.
The tension grows as the broadcasts get stronger, bypassing the need for television. It puts the kids on edge, especially young Constance, who can already hear the voices of the Messengers. Additionally, another looming threat–the Waiting Room, full of rank-smelling mud and bugs that serve as a punishment for unruly kids–winds up being faced by none other than Sticky, whose resolve is known to be less impressive than the others’.
In the end, though, Sticky’s dealings with the Waiting Room does not result in the kids’ mission being revealed. Instead, it helps them advance to a place where they can get more information.
Despite being told again and again that the success of the mission requires all four kids, Reynie Muldoon is undoubtedly the main character. It’s cleverness on his part that sees the gang through their biggest hardships, solving the puzzles that Benedict sets before them, outwitting Curtain’s ego. Such is the case here, as some quick thinking on Reynie’s part gains him the favor of Mr. Curtain prior to this moment. With it, he convinces Curtain to give Reynie and Sticky the positions of Messenger.
Curtain teaches them about the Whisperer, the machine that soothes a kid’s fears while using their brain to “translate” Curtain’s dire messages. With firsthand knowledge of how the machine works, and likewise armed with the knowledge of Curtain’s plans for the future, they send everything they know via flashlight and Morse Code to Benedict’s team.
Tensions in this section are obviously greater than in the previous two parts. Working more closely with Curtain, and indeed, messing with his mind-control machine, puts them at greater risk of being caught. Up until this point, there are even a few instances where suspicion is cast on them, and it is only through cleverness that they are able to transfer it to someone else and therefore continue their mission.
Facing the Enemy
Milligan appears disguised as a Helper and offers the kids a way out. They’ve done what they can, and Benedict, not wanting to put them in any more danger, tries via Milligan to convince them to leave. But it’s clear that even getting off the island won’t help; the broadcasts are soon going to get even stronger, and there will be no place for the kids to hide.
So the group test their bravery. They decide to stay and attempt to dismantle the Whisperer on their own. Their last reconnaissance revolves around how to dismantle the Whisperer and stop Curtain for good. With the computers that run it kept secluded to prevent sabotage, it’s no easy task. In the end, Reynie and Sticky are called for one last session with Curtain and the Whisperer. They stall while the girls sprint to help them, and Kate gets caught in the process.
Constance Contraire arrives to save the day, turning her contrary nature into her greatest asset–just as Sticky’s unexpected bravery helps stall Curtain, and Kate’s selflessness helps Constance get to where she needs to be–and she confuses and befuddles the Whisperer. After a one-on-one with Mr. Curtain, where they use his anger-induced narcolepsy to subdue him. He gets away, eventually, in the chaos, but Benedict and the others arrive to help the kids get away.
They escape Nomansan Island, leaving Benedict temporarily to dismantle the Whisperer the rest of the way. They reconvene on the bridge and make their escape. In the chaos, Milligan reveals that he remembers who he is, and that his “name,” Milligan, refers to his last memory, of promising to return to the mill again. It’s a memory that Kate held throughout the book, believing her father had just left her.
Kate’s reunion with her long-lost father is not the only happy ending. Sticky’s parents return and hope to make up with him for their previous behavior. Miss Perumal, who has been a constant source of strength for Reynie despite the fact that she only appears for a short while, winds up adopting him. And Mr. Benedict asks Constance to adopt him, Rhonda Kazembe, and Number Two, his helpers. It is overall quite happy, marred only by the fact that Curtain remains at large.
The plot’s score is 10/10.
Everything in the story winds up being a Chekhov’s Gun. That is to say, every element introduced at some point in the novel winds up being used in some way. The kids each have something that sets them apart, and those differences are ultimately what allows them to succeed–Reynie as the leader, Kate as the spy, Sticky as a factual resource, and Constance as a stubborn kid. The children also grow as characters. Reynie checks his pride, Sticky grows a spine, Kate discovers it’s okay to need help sometimes, and Constance starts to grow polite.
Additionally, certain elements of the plot are layered in so that tension continues to increase: first, the threat of the Emergency, second, the danger of infiltrating the Institute, third, the strengthened broadcasts, fourth, being a double agent right under the antagonist’s nose, and fifth, actually attempting to sabotage the antagonist’s weapon. It allows for a constant uphill trajectory of conflict.
There are a few points of convenience that, while they don’t affect the story in any meaningful way and thus don’t affect my rating, do deserve to be pointed out. Firstly, after supposedly having only two people pass Benedict’s test, and not even at the same time, it’s hard to believe that four kids would suddenly pass them simultaneously. Secondly, Benedict states that all four children will be needed, because all four of them have talents upon which their success hangs. So, not only are four kids found at the last minute, but each of them somehow have the exact talents needed to pull this off. How Benedict even knows four kids are required is beyond me. But, he is right, and one could just chalk it up to luck or chance, and ultimately their team is able to do exactly what it set out to do.