by Rona Arato
Fitzhenry & Whiteside
Yes, I know summer is almost over but here's one last summer hurrah for readers to enjoy a 1920s Catskill Mountains resort and solve a mystery with 11-year-old Sammy Levin and his cohort of young sleuths.
Sammy has been invited by his Aunt Pearl to travel with her and his cousins, Joshua and Leah, to the Liebman’s summer resort to get him away from his gang in New York City and to give Sammy’s father some time with his new wife Martha. But upon his arrival Sammy learns she has arranged for him to work at the resort while she and her family enjoy the benefits of being guests. Although initially chagrined at this turn of events–as are his Uncle Milton and his father when they visit–Sammy realizes soon enough that he enjoys the work and palling around with other teens who work at the hotel, especially fourteen-year-olds Adam Van Dorn and the owner’s daughter Shayna Liebman, and even performing with the hotel’s entertainer, Moishe.
It was exhilirating and nerve-wracking, but Sammy never felt more like he belonged. (pg. 80)But there seem to be ghostly forces at work creating havoc at the Liebman’s hotel and on the property of the nearby Hermit, a former slave, including broken dishware, a trampled vegetable garden, a ceiling light falling, and a fire at the Hermit’s chicken coop. Mrs. Leibman is convinced it’s her dead grandmother expressing her annoyance at the hotel owner’s use of her recipes, but that doesn’t explain the headless horseman (“Some fool hidin’ his head in a black cape and ridin’ a horse”; pg. 44) whom the Hermit witnesses and who later makes appearances at the hotel. Sammy, who recalls the terrorizing of his Polish village by soldiers, is determined to stop good people like the Hermit and the Liebmans from experiencing further distress and damage. Together with Adam and Shayna and the annoying Joshua–who always makes sure to clarify to others that “I’m a guest” (pg. 43)–Sammy pursues the mystery of the headless horseman and does a little ghost-busting.
There’s a mystery to be solved and Rona Arato, award-winning writer of The Last Train (Owlkids, 2013), sets up all the clues for the kids to discover the solution and make things right. Sammy and the Headless Horseman is a Jewish Hardy Boys for the middle-grade set. But it’s the setting and atmosphere with which Rona Arato infuses her plot that makes the story all the better (and she provides historical notes and photographs to enhance her story). Sammy and Headless Horseman takes you back to a time when a mountain resort and swimming in a pool and a lake and playing cards and hanging with your peers was summertime bliss. But by saturating the story with the foods, vocabulary and culture of a Jewish community of the 1920s, many of whom recall their emigration from the old country to the States, Rona Arato has ensured that Sammy and the Headless Horseman is seasoned with a distinctive flavour and ambiance that leaves the reader and the characters feeling good.
If you're in the Toronto area, don't miss the opportunity to get a signed copy from Rona Arato this Sunday, August 28, 2016 at Indigo Yorkdale. Details here.