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So what’s Behind the Attic Wall?

Continuing my reviews of books with the word “Attic” in the title is “Behind the Attic Wall,” a YA novel that could not be more different from “Flowers in the Attic,” but at the same time left such an impression on me that for years I considered it one of my favorites, even after I’d forgotten much of the plot. I do remember, though, that this was the first book where the ending made me cry. (Or maybe that was Judy Blume’s “Tiger Eyes”—I read them both around the same time.)

The basics qualify as a kind of Brontë-esque novel. This makes it difficult to place in time, though from the clues given, I imagine it’s set in the 1950s. Possibly New England. Maggie, a lonely girl who we discover later is an orphan, reacts to her world with violence and anger. She’s therefore been tossed from boarding school to boarding school, until she lands at a former boarding school, whose only inhabitants are now her great-aunts, Lillian and Harriet, with occasional visits from great-uncle Morris. And possibly by some other … well, I can’t quite say “people,” but more on that later.

The spinster aunts are predictably cold hearted, have strange rules when it comes to food, and criticize Maggie right in front of her, as though she were invisible. On the other hand, Uncle Morris is kind in a clownish way, almost a little too buffoonish, as he seems unable to speak in anything but riddles. It’s all understandably confusing to Maggie, who’s already mentally checked out of the home as soon as she arrives—she even throws up before she gets to the front door. But where else is she to go?

Tellingly, the one moment where Aunt Lillian tries to connect with Maggie is when she gives her a doll, which Maggie (who, as a 12-year-old, not a five-year-old, may have felt insulted) proceeds to squeeze, throw on the floor, and declare that she doesn’t play with dolls. It reveals just how out of touch the great-aunts are with an adolescent girl, and how Maggie reacts to kindness, however misguided. There’s something almost feral about her. But it also foreshadows the characters who will soon come into play.

Alright, I guess I’ve teased out the big reveal long enough, and the cover is enough of a spoiler. Behind the attic wall are three ceramic dolls—a man (Timothy John), his wife (Miss Christabel), and their dog, Juniper. They’re as eccentric as Uncle Morris, but their own brand of kindness makes Maggie rescind her declaration that she doesn’t play with dolls. In fact, she grows to love them, miming along with their invisible tea and fake bread and butter, and fixing Miss Christabel’s broken leg.

Because of this unique connection, Maggie begins to blossom, if you will (there’s much talk about roses—the rose-printed tattered wallpaper in the room serves as the dolls’ “garden”), and even Maggie’s stern great-aunts are surprised by her transformation. But they still watch her every step, to the point where you know that this idyllic life in the hidden room won’t last.

Speaking of gardens, there have been comparisons made to “The Secret Garden.” I haven’t read it so I can’t comment on that, but I do know that the dolls in “Behind the Attic Wall” are so lovingly brought to life—whether in Maggie’s mind or in reality—that it would even warm the hearts of those with doll-phobia. And reading about Maggie being able to give and receive love for the first time in her life—the dolls achieved what humans could not—makes the ending all the more heartbreaking. That I will not reveal, but I will say I hope that one day someone is able to give new life to this book, which I believe is now out of print. Perhaps onscreen?