The Secret Order of the Gumm Street Girls

The Secret Order of the Gumm Street Girls By Elise Primavera [LibraryThingAmazon]

Although Prudence Gumm, Franny Muggs, and Cat Lemonjello have all lived on the same street their whole lives, they don’t like each other at all. And when Ivy Diamond moves to town, it’s not long before none of them like her, either. But then they find themselves mixed up with a witch, a lot of ruby red slippers – and one silver one – a wizard in a hot air balloon, and magical and perilous secret country. To survive, they’ll have to work together, appreciate each other’s strengths, and look at almost everything from the other way around.

This is a very, very strange book. I mean, I finished it and just sat there blinking perplexedly for a while. After sleeping on it for a night, I still can’t decide whether it’s charmingly whimsical, annoyingly over-the-top, or just plain baffling.

See, the girls live in the town of Sherbet, which is Stepford-perfect; for example, it rains every day in the summer precisely at four in the afternoon for precisely 45 minutes, followed by a rainbow. Franny lives in a house shaped like a wedding cake; Cat lives in a tree. They attend a school where the classes are named after sandwiches (Tuna-on-Rye, Bacon-Lettuce-and-Tomato, Egg-Salad, and Liverwurst), and where misbehaving students were formerly punished by dropping them to the bottom of a wishing well, in which sits the cottage from “Hansel and Gretel,” and locking them in the oven. Their beloved piano teacher and mentor, Mr. Staccato, has two talking dogs named Fred and Ginger, although they can only say “Did you ever?” and “Never!”

So the world is strange before the girls get whisked off by a backwards tidal wave to the underground land of Spoz, where they’re imprisoned by witches who force them to make countless French fries out of sentient potatoes from the land of Spudz. Yeah, you read that right.

On top of that, it’s a Wizard of Oz…well, fanfiction. It’s not a pastiche; it’s about a world in which Dorothy’s story is absolutely factual, although the girls themselves never actually go to Oz. That’s all well and good, but the weird thing is that the book series and the movie version of Oz both exist in Gumm Street. The real silver shoes (Dorothy’s shoes were originally silver, but the filmmakers changed them to red for the movie to show off the new color technology) are disguised with red paint as movie props. All of the girls have seen the movie, and Pru has read the first book several times. Which is fine, but they’re not very startled at all to learn that Oz is real. Which is…strange. There’s a general acceptance by our heroines of all the bewildering stuff that happens in the book, which I guess is natural when you live in a tree and are a student in Tuna-on-Rye, but when the characters adjust quickly to living in a giant Z and peeling endless blinking potatoes, it sort of leaves the reader in the dust.

This intense weirdness is compounded by the fact that the mythology behind the whole story makes no sense. I found myself totally lost as to how Spoz and Spudz had come to be, who was related to whom, whether or not Ivy’s Aunt Viola was actually a zombie, whether or not Cat had conjured the Wizard of Oz, how they wound up getting the second silver slipper, why Hieronymous Gumm had founded Sherbert Academy, who had magical powers and who didn’t, and who the villain Cha-Cha Staccato actually was. (She’s supposed to be out for revenge for her sister, the Wicked Witch of the West, but…the Wicked Witch of the East is dead too. That’s sort of the whole point of The Wizard of Oz!) I was also bewildered by Ivy’s Jinx, the beast that’s been living in her shadow for the past seven years, ever since Cha-Cha tricked her into taking the seven years’ bad luck of a broken mirror. show

I’m sure some of my confusion springs from the fact that I was blinded by the sheer weird of the book, but a lot of it is just messy plotting and exposition.

The thing about the weirdness, though…often weird books seem like they’re trying really hard to be weird. Here Be Monsters! is one of these books; Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians is another. As weird as Gumm Street is, the weirdness never seems forced; the sheer crazy spills naturally off of the pages. It was too much kooky for me, and yet I find I can’t exactly fault it for that, since it almost seemed like it couldn’t be helped.

And Gumm Street does have some strong redeeming qualities. Their names are Ivy, Cat, Franny, and Pru. The four protagonists are extremely likeable. They’re all very distinct characters, with their own strengths and weaknesses and interests and fears; in their bizarre setting their personalities and relationships remain strong and believable. The history of how Cat and Pru were best friends before they drifted apart; Franny’s loneliness and jealousy; Ivy’s desire for friends conflicting with her fear of them getting hurt by her unluckiness; their growing mutual respect: all feel real and very much like honest girlhood. No doubt about it, the Gumm Street Girls are this book’s saving grace.

It’s also worth noting that Primavera’s plentiful scribbly illustrations are quite charming, in a Quentin Blake-ish fashion that fits nicely with the smatterings of Roald Dahl in her prose.

In the end, The Secret Order of the Gumm Street Girls gets three cupcakes. It’s an enjoyable enough read, and the characters are strong enough to balance out the epic crazy. There’s a clear setup for a sequel at the end, and odds are pretty good that I’ll be picking it up.

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    2 Responses to “The Secret Order of the Gumm Street Girls”

    1. Christina says:

      Sounds interesting, like my kind of book.

    2. Anastacia says:

      Now I HAVE to read this… 🙂

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