"The Sixty-Eight Rooms"
By Marianne Malone
Random House Books for Young Readers, 288 pages, $16.99
With her new young adult novel, 'The Sixty-Eight Rooms,' artist and former art teacher Marianne Malone has tapped into a fantasy that is both very Chicago and completely universal. What would it be like to shrink down to scale, live, and lounge in the Art Institute’s much beloved Thorne Miniature Rooms? In Malone’s tale, two scrappy Chicago sixth graders find out.
As far as 11-year-olds go, Jack and Ruthie are pretty easy to imagine walking through Chicago -- though parents and adult readers may lust for the inexplicably huge and impossibly hip loft Jack shares with his struggling-artist mother. They’re inquisitive, but well-behaved; they’re spunky, good in school and still at an age where boys and girls can, indeed, be best friends, before things like puberty get in the way. They hail from loving, middle class families and, Malone notes, they are the only two kids on scholarship at an uppity downtown private school. Jack is the free spirit, with Ruthie his willing cohort. But Ruthie craves an adventure of her own.
It all starts with that annual fieldtrip to the Art Institute. Not nearly as well-versed in the museum as Jack, Ruthie is immediately dazzled by Mrs. James Ward Thorne’s 68 exquisite miniature American, European, and Asian interiors (permanently installed in the museum’s basement since 1942). She weaves through the dark gallery as all of us have, kneeling on the carpeted step that lines the walls and trying to peer beyond what is immediately visible—vistas painted on the other side of windows, hallways that just have to lead to somewhere. She wonders about the painstaking detail in the dozens of minute paintings and leather-bound books that fill the rooms; she’s wowed by the opulence of it all: marble bathtubs built right into the floor, gilded instruments, satin sheets, and canopy beds fit for a queen.
She starts wishing that she were tiny too—small enough to roam the corridors, sleep in the beds, and see if those miniature instruments actually work. It’s an experience that I, for one, could immediately relate to (though being tall, my hope was that the rooms would scale up to me instead of vice versa…). There’s just something about the Thorne Rooms that transfixes kids in ways that other, similar displays do not. (I did spend a fair share of my childhood lurking around Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle at the Museum of Science and Industry, but its hold on me couldn’t compete with the Thorne Rooms.)
The variance in wealth, time, and place may have a lot to do with the pull of the Thorne Rooms, but the sheer number matters, too, making them seem like an alternative universe. The rooms pull you in and force you to imagine what life might have been like in another place and another time. I found them magical and, in many ways, I still do. That whole space is a sanctuary, of sorts. Just being there I revert to my 12-year-old self, wanting silence from fellow patrons, annoyed when some less appreciative museumgoer cuts off my orderly progression or obscures my view. I can only imagine that Ruthie felt the same.
Jack, meanwhile, has been up to something else entirely. While poking around the enclosure that runs behind the Thorne Rooms, he finds a strange old key—one that has remarkable effects on Ruthie when they return to the basement galleries that weekend. The key warms in the palm of her hand and suddenly, she shrinks from five feet to five inches tall (precisely the same inch-to-the-foot scale to which Mrs. Thorne staunchly held her craftsmen). Once over the initial shock, the two realize this enormous power and, it seems, gift. Clutching Jack’s hand as the magic takes hold, Ruthie finds she can bring him with her and, à la Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, they hash a plan to return for an entire night.
Magical realism aside, Malone has instilled a healthy dose of “fact” here—from excellent, accurate details regarding the rooms’ inception to the many true-to-life items extracted from the interiors themselves (a tiny Hans Holbein portrait of Cristina, the Duchess of Milan; a miniature Mayflower model ship). Ruthie and Jack’s pint-sized adventures take them to Salem Witch Trial-era Massachusetts and pre-Revolutionary France as the magic extends beyond the rooms themselves and into those painted vistas and hidden hallways, the kids becoming avid history buffs in the process.
If anything, you’re left wanting more—more rooms, more real-life Thorne ephemera, more jaunts through different, more exotic historical landscapes. In that way, this novel, like the Thorne rooms themselves, is a beginning but also a destination.
Rachel Wolff is a New York-based writer, editor, and critic. Her work appears in New York Magazine, the Daily Beast, Art + Auction, ARTnews, Chicago Magazine, and CS.
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