Defying the crowd is almost an axiom of the young-adult genre, deeply influenced as it is by the Holden Caulfield model. But in Beth Kanell’s The Secret Room, the young heroine would rather fit into her close-knit, traditional community than stand out. And, the author suggests, that’s just fine, provided the community can accommodate a few outsiders who question its ways.
The setting is a fictional Northeast Kingdom village. Kanell, the author of a previous YA novel, co-owns Kingdom Books in Waterford. Like fellow NEK writer David Stahler Jr. in his recent novel Spinning Out, she’s chosen for her young protagonist a native who bonds with a more affluent newcomer. Eighth grader Shawna Lee is accustomed to hearty farm fare and heavy farm chores. Many things about her new friend Thea’s home perplex her, such as the dainty salad she’s served as a main course. But culture clash fades into the background when the two girls discover a hidden room in Thea’s basement. Could it have been a stop on the Underground Railroad?
In a smart twist, Kanell paints the adults in the novel as quicker to jump to that romantic conclusion than the middle schoolers are. Encouraged by a tough history teacher to ferret out the facts, Shawna and Thea become archive sleuths.
The revelations that emerge about the secret room aren’t stunning (they seldom are in historical research), and Shawna’s parallel, more disturbing discovery about her own family is too heavily foreshadowed to surprise.
But the novel’s power is in its light touch with weighty subjects. Kanell finds low-key, constructive ways to broach issues that cause real conflict when “flatlanders” settle in rural Vermont, such as the comprehension gap between Shawna’s church-going family and Thea’s nonobservant one. The author also shows — more gently than Jamie Oliver ever could — that, while Shawna’s mom’s food is delectable and made with love, it’s making her fat. The real food revolution, the novel suggests, will take place in homes across the nation where kids from health-conscious families stop their friends from taking that third cookie.
The Secret Room by Beth Kanell, Brigantine Media, 281 pages. $9.95.