Review of Dark Companion

Dark Companion

Marta Acosta

Published by Tor Teen in 2012

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Disclaimer: this novel involves sexual content, as well as drug use. Please consult with your parents before reading

I’ve been working on a project about the intertextuality of Jane Eyre in 21st Century children’s and YA lit, and yesterday I finally finished reading my primary sources (hurray). The last book I read for this project was Dark Companion by Marta Acosta. This YA book started as an online novel, and was so popular with readers that it was picked up by Tor Teen and published “officially” in print and ebook format. I spent yesterday reading all 350 pages, one because I had too, and two because it was a real page turner.

The Story: Jane was orphaned at eight, and has been hopping from foster home to foster home until finally landing in a group home run by the horrid Mrs. Prichard in the rough neighbourhood of Helmsdale (called Hellsdale by the residents). After working hard in school, Jane is accepted to the prestigious Birch Grove Academy on a full scholarship. Here Jane finds a new group of friends, enjoys her classes, loves her beautiful little cottage nestled in the woods, and even develops a serious crush on the headmistress’s son, Lucien. However, Birch Wood is too good to be true, and Jane begins to question the seemingly sinister activities taking place at the school: why did the school nurse, Mrs. Mason, kill herself? Why did the former scholarship student, whose place Jane has filled, abruptly leave? Why is Lucien so obsessed with Jane’s blood? As the back cover write-up states “As Jane begins to piece together the answers to the puzzle, she must find out why she was brought to Birch Grove—and what she would risk to stay there.”

What Wallace and I think: Since the promotional quote from the Kirkus Review on the front cover says that this book “gives vampires and their victims a long-overdue makeover” (really, is it long-overdue?! Has this reviewer been living under a rock?) I am not ruining the surprise by saying the book does deal with vampires. Because of this I immediately started making comparisons to Twilight, as I’m sure anyone reading a YA book about vampires would do. Because I feel this trend is overused, I wasn’t overtly hopeful. As well, though Twilight is somewhat of a guilty pleasure for me, and I can understand why it has been so popular, I find the abusive undertones and Bella’s passive acceptance of her treatment and utter devotion to both boys highly disturbing. There is nothing about Bella’s relationship with Edward or Jacob that young readers should wish for in their own romantic lives.

So though I was cautious when starting Dark Companion I was quickly won over, and was convinced by the end that THIS is the vampire book I could get behind.

  1. I found the “modern” update of vampires in Twilight very cheesy (ie. They sparkle…what?!). Acosta’s reimaging of the vampire myth I think does a better job of bringing the legend into the modern world. Acosta’s “vampires” are not the undead, they don’t have fangs, they don’t hunt people, and they are not immortal. Instead they are humans who have an enzyme deficiency caused by a recessive genetic disorder that causes a biological desire to replace their damage DNA by drinking blood. They drink animal blood, will eat red foods and drinks to trick the cravings, and will drink human blood when available.
  2. Jane is a strong and realistic flawed character who says no. She is often confused by her feelings for Lucien (of course she is, otherwise there wouldn’t be any drama), and it at times boarders into dangerous Bella and Edward like territory. But Jane ultimately is in control of her body and decides what she wants. Jane understands pain is not love, and says no. Jane saying no, and whoever she says no too stopping whatever they are doing when she says it, is important.
  3. I remember feeling uncomfortable and sad when watching the third Twilight The night before Bella’s wedding she is alone in her room, with only a quick goodnight from her dad, and Edward is out for a “stag” with his friends. It made me think back to my own “night-before-the-wedding” surrounded by my family and my best girlfriends. I felt supported and loved. My wedding day didn’t feel like just a celebration of mine and my husband’s love for one another, but of the love we shared with our whole community of family and friends. Bella didn’t have that because she isolated herself from her family and friends through her complete obsession with Edward. Jane connects with three girls in the novel, and grows close to them, leans on them, and is still standing with them at the end. Along with Jane’s saying no, Jane’s having true friends and not letting herself become completely sidetracked by a boy, I found refreshing.
  4. Acosta’s novel patriciates in Victorian gothic conventions, which I think she does well. I love that she opens each chapter with a quote from the very best gothic writers and works of the Victorian era like Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray; Charles Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood; Bram Stokers’ Dracula (obviously); Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ligeia”; and John William Polidor “The Vampyre”. I appreciated this because it set the tone throughout the novel, and, as I always hope, could peak the interest of young readers to check out these texts for themselves. As well the novel is a reimagining of Jane Eyre in an imaginative and surprising way that I greatly enjoyed.

I give this novel a 4/5

Tom and Hetty’s School Stories

In the past week and a half I’ve read eight school stories from the Victorian and Edwardian eras for my comprehensive exam. Below are reviews of my favorite two.

Tom Brown’s School Days by Thomas Hughes (1857)

This novel holds a special place in the history of children’s literature because it is the first boys’ school story written for children. After the publication of Tom Brown the genre of boys’ school stories was extremely popular from the Victorian period into the 1950s.

There was a revival of this genre, though not specially for boys, with the publication of Harry Potter. Many have argued that Harry Potter participates in Victorian boarding school story conventions. Proof of this argument can be found in Tom Brown as I noticed several similarities between the two. In many ways Tom Brown feels like the great-great-great grandfather of Harry Potter. The way the school is described reminded me of Hogwarts ( for example the School-house hall: “It is a great room thirty feet long and eigtheen high, with two great tables running the whole length, and two large fireplaces at the side, with blazing fires in them” [92]). The three best friends in Tom Brown was also familiar. Tom and Harry both share the spotlight in their respective stories, often put their heroism to the test, and are the centre of attention in their schools. The role of “best friend” are filled by East and Ron, and both are loyal best friends to Harry and Tom. East and Ron are fun and well-meaning, though not the smartest, and often get into trouble without meaning too. George Arthur is a prototype for Hermione as he is the smartest of his friends, often their conscience, and cares more about his grades then excelling in athletics.

Tom Brown’s School Days takes place at Rugby school, a real school which author Thomas Hughes attended, and that is still in existence today! While Hughes was a student at Rugby, Dr. Thomas Arnold was the headmaster. Dr. Arnold instituted many new practices that since have become common place in English boarding schools (and will be familiar to those who have read Harry Potter). Significant changes Dr. Arnold made include:

Dr. Arnold had his students study history, math, and modern languages (ie. German, Italian, French, not just Latin and Greek as had been the standard)

Dr. Arnold developed the Praeposter or Prefect system. The prefect system gave high achieving older boys from the upper classes power over the rest of the students, which was intended to keep order in the school. Prefects were placed in each dormitory to monitor the younger boys, were hall and class monitors, and could decide how boys who misbehaved were to be disciplined. Basically Percy Weasley was the ideal Prefect.

Dr. Arnold loved sports, and he allowed his students to take part in sports, like field hockey and football, as an alternative to hunting and fighting (yes fighting was allowed). School sporting events mark some of the biggest and most anticipated events for students in the novel, which again can be seen in Harry Potter in the excitement and emphasis that is placed on Quidditch matches between houses (competition between houses is also in Tom Brown).

Though the Rugby school environment may seem as foreign to contemporary readers as Hogwarts, there are timeless themes that run through the novel. For example, bullying is present throughout the novel. The edition that I read included in the preface a letter written to Thomas Hughes that draws attention to bullying within schools. The author of the letter tells Hughes:

A boy may have moral courage, and a finely-organized brain and nervous system. Such a boy is calculated, if judiciously educated, to be a great wise and useful man . . . but one nights bullying may produce such an injury . . . that this usefulness is spoiled for life (xxxvi)

Over 150 years later, the destructive effects of bullying on a child’s spirit is well known and still too common. Tom Brown is bullied by older boys when he first enters the school and Tom is only able to overcome his tormenters with the help of others. When other boys rally around Tom the bullying ceases. This is an important lesson, and I hope would inspire any young person to likewise not be a bystander to bullying in their schools.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Tom Brown’s School Days and how much I enjoyed Hughes writing (simply beautiful). I give it a 4/5

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Tom, Arthur, and East

A World of Girls: The Story of a School by L. T. Meade (1886)

L.T. Meade  started writing at 17 and wrote over 300 books during her life. A World of Girls is arguably Meade’s most famous. What I appreciated about this book, and what I found refreshing about it amidst the other Victorian school stories I was reading, is that the characters felt real. They weren’t perfect. Everyone is flawed. Even the head mistress (which is usually a pillar of perfection in these types of school stories) makes mistakes.

The novel follows Hester Thornton (called Hetty) who is sent to Lavender School shortly after the death of her mother. Hetty is stubborn, proud, unforgiving, and has a quick temper. She has trouble fitting into Lavender School because the other students find her extremely stand-offish and difficult to even strike up a conversation with. Hetty immediately and irrationally dislikes the school favorite Annie Forest. Most of the plot centres on the feud between Hetty and Annie, which is portrayed in an entertaining (in that it makes you want to see what happens next) and realistic way (in that you could probably relate to similar relationships in your own life).

The characters that surround Hetty and Annie are dynamic and interesting. There is Hetty’s first roommate Susan Drummond who is perpetually tired and impossible to wake up, and who always carries around lollipops. There is Dora Russell, a upper year girl who is spoiled and proud, and yet gets in trouble for reading Jane Eyre (its banned at the school!). There is Tiger, a gypsy dog who is so intelligent that he can actually understand what people say to him. Oh, and there’s gypsies, which are always a good time.

This book is arguably more accessible than Tom Brown’s School Days. Thomas Hughes devotes a lot of space to descriptions which I know some readers find tiresome, and he also makes very Victorian specific references that could confuse those not knowledgeable of the era. World of Girls has timeless themes like friendship and bullying that continue to make it relatable, and has exciting twists and turns that are entertaining (did I mention gyspys?!?!) and the characters are more vibrant which makes for a more pleasurable read. I give it a 5/5.

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Annie tries to win over Hetty

If either of these novels sound interesting to you, they can be read online for free at the Gutenberg Project.

And if you’re interested in the other books I read this week, but didn’t talk about, they are listed below and most can also be read on the Gutenberg Project.

James DeMille’s The B.O.W.C. (1869) 4.5/5 (I may post on this book at a later date, because it is excellent)

William Mayne’s A Swarm in May (1955) 4/5

Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did at School (1873) 4/5

Angela Brazil’s The Fortunes of Philippa (1907) 3.5/5

W. Farrar’s Eric; or Little by Little (1858) 3/5