|The Midnight Dress / Karen Foxlee
NY: Knopf, c2013.
As the story opens, Rose and her nomadic father are stopping off in the small town of Leonora (think Cairns, along the coast in the north of Australia). She's used to moving on whenever her father decides they've had enough of any one place. But Leonora gets under her skin -- she starts school, and meets Pearl Kelly, one of the popular girls, who inexplicably becomes her friend. Pearl is one of those girls who makes things happen, and she organizes the Harvest Festival float for the school. She ropes Rose in to be her fellow planner of this major event in the life of their small town.
But as part of the festival, there's also a dance and Pearl convinces Rose that they should visit Edie Baker, a recluse and rumoured witch who was also one of the best dressmakers around in the past. They want to stitch up a midnight blue dress to wear to the festival, to outshine everyone.
Here is where the story got interesting for me. Edie is a cranky old woman who doesn't want much to do with these young girls. But she sees something in Rose, another misfit, and offers not to make a dress but to teach Rose to make it herself. Her house is full of old materials and supplies, and she starts Rose off on the work. While the amount of work and skill required is a bit condensed here, Rose does learn and the details of her hours with Edie are wonderful. There is a tinge of magical realism in the story as well, mainly centred around Edie and sewing, which is lovely.
The book starts with the dramatic event that the whole story is leading up to, and then goes back to trace how the characters got there. I had figured out the twist by halfway through, but the descriptions both of Edie's house, sewing, and the landscape around Leonora were so fascinating that I didn't really care that the mystery wasn't all that mysterious.
The emotional arc is quite tumultuous, and I had some problems with it. Why are there always dead girls, for example? There are some elements of the 'romance' plot that I didn't feel comfortable with, and the tragic opening scene seemed to be avoidable by the end. But the story is rich and grounded in its place, and had some great characters to follow.
It was an absorbing story, and the magic of stitching was the thread I loved following.