The Doldrums is a tale about a lonely, overprotected eleven-year-old boy named Archer B. Helmsley. Though he is the grandson of two famous explorers and lives in their fantastical house of curiosities (alongside exotic examples of taxidermy), he is in serious want of both friendship and adventure.
"Did Ralph and Rachel march to the beat of a different drum? Perhaps. You could even say they ditched the marching and the drums and danced a jig to a xylophone instead."
It’s been two years since Ralph and Rachel Helmsley went missing in an unfortunate iceberg incident. Though Archer knows little about his grandparents and hasn’t seen them since he was a baby, his interest is piqued when trunks containing some of their belongings arrive on his doorstep. He convinces himself that his grandparents aren’t dead, and begins planning his own expedition to Antarctica in the far-fetched hope of retrieving them. But he knows he can’t do it alone.
Friendship is a strong and pervasive theme running throughout this book. It isn’t until Archer joins forces with Oliver—his somewhat cowardly but well-meaning neighbor, and Adelaide—his new French classmate with a wooden leg and a wild story about how she got it, that the story really picks up steam. Adelaide outshines Oliver with quiet prominence, thanks to several chapters dedicated solely to her unique backstory. Her confident poise and improvisational skills lend a cohesive balance to the dynamic between the boys, as well as a curious point of tension with Archer as her presence poses a challenge to the hazy nuisance of fast-approaching puberty.
On the whole, the prose has the feel of a classic. Eloquently written and languidly paced, The Doldrums does require a bit of patience to finally deliver on the promise of adventure and intrigue. (Even then, it’s more misadventure than not.) But the descriptions, combined with emotional depth, cunning humor, and competent dialogue, makes for a charming literary experience.
"And who said anything about dying? I don't plan on dying."
"Nobody plans on dying," said Oliver.
"I nearly died," said Adelaide.
"That's why you're not afraid," Oliver replied. "I've only had far-death experiences and I prefer to keep it that way."
On the downside, nearly all of the adults in this book felt disappointingly one-dimensional—either flatly horrible, or so passive and appeasing they enable the horrible ones with their negligence. The exception, of course, being Archer’s grandparents. (Although, they end up being more mythos than characters in this particular installment.) In a way, this book felt like a lengthy prologue—an intricately detailed preamble to Archer and his cohorts, along with the idea of “The Society,” which seems sure to come into play in later books.
I feel the need to add: the illustrations in this book are FANTASTIC. A few elaborate black-and-white snippets here and there to break up heavier chapters, and regularly interspersed with full-page color artwork that offers warm sienna leanings—which fittingly invokes a vaguely 1950’s air. The quality of the imagery is both a compliment and an irrefutable enhancement to Gannon’s writing. The fact he is both author AND illustrator is exceedingly impressive, epitomizing the phrase "labor of love."
This is definitely a budding middle-grade series (and author) worth keeping an eye on!