The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict
I have reviewed every single book in Trenton Lee Stewart’s series, The Mysterious Benedict Society. That seems like overkill, really, but in this case, I don’t care. Often I won’t bother to review later books in a series if I loved or hated them equal to the original. What seems to happen with Stewart’s books is that I love them just so much that I can’t help but want to make people read the books. Or maybe I grow to love them even more, I don’t know.
With the third Mysterious Benedict book ending on such a final note, I wondered what Stewart would do next. With any other author, I would have thought a prequel to be a desperate plumbing of the money well. With The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict, I thought, “Yes, please! Tell me all about how the wonderful Mr. Benedict grew up!” If you don’t remember, or if you’ve never read any of these books and are just curious, the children in the original series are mentored, protected, educated and guided by the kindly and slightly mysterious Mr. Nicholas Benedict. He suffers from narcolepsy, which is often triggered by strong emotions. He has an evil twin, Ledopthra Curtain, who is out to thwart him at every turn. He is a genius himself and often sees through the tough facades of certain prickly children. He also has a large, bulbous nose and a terribly squeaky laugh. Hey, he can’t be perfect.
In Extraordinary Education, it shows off nine-year-old Nicholas’ uncanny ability to notice and deduce things, his photographic memory, and his incredible skill at fixing and inventing things. The book begins with his arrival at a new orphanage. He has been shuffled from one to another since the death of his aunt. His narcolepsy makes him difficult to manage, owing to the horrendous nightmares he suffers from and sudden and dangerous naps he will periodically take. Honestly though, what kind of story would have Nicholas as a happy little boy, surrounded by family? Then his name would be Encyclopedia Brown, and as much as I loved those books as a girl, Nicholas Benedict is far more interesting.
The orphanage is in dire straights, due to the previous director’s wanton ways and the current director, Mr. Collum, is desperate to cut any costs to save it from folding. The manor that doubles as the orphanage was once owned by the Rothchilds, wealthy, childless benefactors who left their fortune to take care of orphans, only to have it squandered by poor management. Over the years, a journal of Mr. Rothchild’s was discovered, describing a great treasure that is on the property and Mr. Collum is determined to find it and save the orphanage’s finances. When Nicholas gets his hands on it, he joins the search, though secretly and with his own agenda.
Poor Nicholas has every obstacle in his way. He is locked into his tiny attic room every night to save the other children from hearing his screams when he has nightmares. A trio of bullies has it out for him since he constantly outwits and humiliates them. Mr. Collum is a cold, unfeeling man who refuses to see that he has a genius on his hands. The one friend Nicholas has is John, but it even takes him a while to sacrifice his own safety and social standing for the sake of Nicholas’ friendship. The hope of finding the treasure gives Nicholas purpose, along with a new friend who shows up. He remains so positive despite his trials, but as he examines his own motivations, he begins to realize that he wasn’t as altruistic as he thought he was.
I don’t want to give too much away here. It really is terribly exciting, though the middle drags a bit as they slog along, trying to find more clues to the treasure. The possibility of finding the treasure remains remote through most of the book, until the snowballing excitement of the last fifty pages. Some passages had me feeling misty-eyed, especially when he recognizes his mistakes and sees true kindness in its most honest form.
Here’s the thing. I don’t own books unless I really want them. I see no point in paying money for a book I may or may not like. If they belong in my family, I buy them. We own all three Mysterious Benedict Society books, plus we have all the audiobooks, including for Extraordinary Education. That’s a lot of money and love we’ve invested in these books. I just recently found out that my second daughter has never finished the third book due to some distracting silly fairy something-or-other and that will simply not do. No sir. These are required reading at our house. I have recommended these books to countless people, including my proudest achievement, when after a particularly passionate speech on the merits of these books to a woman in a bookstore in Denver, she purchased all three and left with a smile on her face. That’s how strongly I feel about them. And you will too.