I’m not sure how many times I read this as a child, but I was a big fan of Eleanor Cameron’s realistic fiction, so it’s likely I read it a few times. Picking it up again as an adult, I can tell exactly what I loved about it. First of all, Nina wants to grow up to be something in a museum. Did books like this make me love museums, or did I love this book because I loved going to museums? Not only is there lots of time spent in the museum – a building full of recreated rooms from a Napoleonic era French house – but there’s a ghost, the diary of a girl who lived long ago, and a mystery buried in the past.
On top of that, Nina is a girl who cares deeply about her surroundings. Her family’s new, ugly apartment is horrifying to her – she wants a view, and light, and beautiful things, even if they’re shabby and worn. I’d forgotten that part of the story – that Nina is obsessed with finding her family a new apartment, that she takes refuge in the museum not only because of the history and her “museum feeling” but also to get away from the ugliness of her apartment and the city. It certainly didn’t matter to me, in the 1990s, that the book was published in 1973. There’s not too much to date it, other than Cameron’s writing style, which is perhaps a little more old-fashioned. But for girls who devour old-fashioned stories – L.M. Montgomery’s books have a similar sensitivity to the aesthetics of settings and homes – this feels relatively modern.
Nina is a character that will appeal to quieter, bookish types – the girls who live half in their imaginations anyway, and kind of wish they lived in a different century. And the story is nicely balanced between her personal story and the story of the historical mystery – she’s not just a device for bringing in the more dramatic 19th century story, but a character in her own right, and in the course of solving the mystery she finds her own place in the world. This is one I’m glad I reread.
Also, I’ve ALWAYS been a sucker for anything with a Trina Schart Hyman cover. I probably made a lot of reading decisions based on that as a kid, and I’m still drawn to them.