The Ogress and the Orphans, Kelly Barnhill (Algonquin 978-1-64375-074-3, $19.99, 390pp, hc) March 2022. Cover by Yuta Onoda.
I am sure the Newbery Medal committee is already well aware of Kelly Barnhill’s luminous, reassuring, and bracingly intelligent novel The Ogress and the Orphans, so they hardly need me to demand their attention to it with this review. I am so delighted with this book, and how it easily stretches beyond the publisher’s intended middle-grade audience, that I feel compelled to use a multitude of superlatives which will hopefully generate even more excitement about its existence. Barnhill is no newcomer to Locus readers, from the award-winning The Girl Who Drank the Moon to the adult thrills found in her recent novel When Women Were Dragons, she has proven herself again and again. Yet it is the deft way in which accomplishes a political novel in which no politics are present that marks The Ogress and the Orphans as a stellar authorial achievement. This is a book that can be enjoyed on so many levels by readers of so many ages; I’m so impressed by what Barnhill has accomplished, and frankly think she must be a powerful witch in order to get this so elegantly done.
There is indeed an ogress and a group of orphans in Barnhill’s book, just as the title suggests. The ogress arrives in the town of Stone-in-the-Glen looking for a new home and, through patience and a lot of hard work, builds a small and thriving farm on the outskirts of town. She is largely unknown to the local population who are far too consumed with the trials of their formerly bucolic village. The library burned down and then the school and fell into disrepair as has every other facet of the community. Why the library was not immediately rebuilt is a bit of a mystery, although Barnhill carefully explains how one thing led to another and another and another, with doubt and frustration and anger slowly building among the population until everyone knows that everything is someone’s fault, surely, but can’t explain how or why or what to do. At the center of it all is a bombastic mayor who arrived in town with the sort of big promises any conman would recognize. How he got away with so much lying (and he really does seem to be getting away with it) is part of the mystery propelling the plot and uniting the children to challenge the adults who seem all too willing to be led astray.
At its heart, The Ogress and the Orphans is about kindness. Barnhill shares the message of kindness, from the ogress making secret gifts from her farm to the hungry town residents, to the frequent recollections of the town’s generous past. Have no fear that the book is a ‘‘message’’ title, however; this is much more an immersive combination of mystery and fantasy that allows readers to witness the power of kindness. It also has a memorable cast, with each of the children (absent the babies who are referred to more as a collective lot), shining in individual ways with quirks and habits that make them stand out. The best part is that the children are just so wicked smart and determined that readers will quickly clamor to learn more about them and join along as they sort out the mayor’s secrets. The Ogress and the Orphans is just a splendid read and absolutely worthy of all sorts of critical and popular attention.
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the August 2022 issue of Locus.
While you are here, please take a moment to support Locus with a one-time or recurring donation. We rely on reader donations to keep the magazine and site going, and would like to keep the site paywall free, but WE NEED YOUR FINANCIAL SUPPORT to continue quality coverage of the science fiction and fantasy field.
©Locus Magazine. Copyrighted material may not be republished without permission of LSFF.