Last week, my family went on a lovely car trip to help celebrate my birthday. We spent four days and three nights doing the Cascades Loop, and to help keep the kids entertained, we decided to take an audiobook. This is the first time we’ve been on a long car trip with them — they are 8 and 5 — so we weren’t sure how the book would go over, though of course we have read aloud to them all their lives. We knew we’d be doing about four hours of driving each day, so we chose Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett, a book I hadn’t read but had heard good things about, and then Edward Eager’s Half Magic as a backup — a book I have read many times and knew my kids would enjoy no matter what.
Chasing Vermeer is about Petra Andalee and Calder Pillay, who are in sixth grade at the University of Chicago Lab School. The mission of the school is to encourage students to learn by doing — by researching, by exploring, by hands-on work — so when Ms. Hussey’s sixth-grade class begins to investigate the question, “Are letters a dead form of communication?” they write letters, they read letters their parents wrote, and they visit museums to see letters in art. Petra and Calder encounter each other over their work (and a mutual devotion to Ms. Hussey.) Naturally, this leads them to Vermeer, who had several famous paintings with letters in them. But this is only the beginning.
When a thief steals a Vermeer painting on its way to Chicago, he or she insists that the attribution of several Vermeer paintings is wrong — that these paintings were done by apprentices and attributed to Vermeer to make money — and demands that museums all over the world change their labels. The thief leaves a trail of clues in the newspaper, and finally declares that he or she may destroy the painting if the demands are not met. Petra and Calder have a lot of puzzle pieces: a book about unexplainable phenomena, an old woman who is the widow of a Vermeer scholar, a suddenly-nervous sixth-grade teacher, a pocket full of pentominoes (like dominoes, but with five sides), and a threatening letter. The way they begin to think about relationships, connections, coincidences, and the language of artwork in order to put these clues together and follow the trail to find the missing painting and defeat the thief makes up the strength of this book.
This novel was great fun to listen to. It worked wonderfully for my children, who listened carefully and offered theories about who had done it. It worked for my husband and me, too; we enjoyed not only Petra and Calder (Balliett obviously likes adolescents) but the vividly-evoked setting of Hyde Park in Chicago. It explores good questions, like “What is art?” and “What is coincidence?” and pushes its protagonists to think critically. I will say that the book isn’t perfect. It evokes other wonderful puzzle-books, like The Westing Game or From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and it’s as well-written as those books are, but it’s not as good as those books in terms of the puzzle itself. The final connections are made with coincidence or superstition, not with reason or probability. “I saw the solution in a dream” or “There sure are a lot of twelves in this mystery” is not as good an ending as “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
Since I listened to this book, I didn’t get to see the artwork by Brett Helquist (of Lemony Snicket fame), and apparently there are clues in the artwork — how fun. And I also didn’t get to do things like decode Calder’s letters to his friend Tommy: you’re given the code and then left to do the decoding yourself. This was a really fun book, and it seems it would be even more fun on paper. Despite my reservations about the solution, I will seek out the sequels for my kids. I could do with a little more Petra and Calder.