Title: The Lanternist
Author: Stephen Orr, illustrated by Timothy Ide
Genre: Historical Fiction/Mystery
Publisher: MidnightSun Publishing
Published: 3rd July 2021
Synopsis: 1901. The slide clunks into the lantern, and Phantoms come alive on the wall. The father-and-son Magic Lantern team of Bert and Tom Eliot are masters of The Art of the Story. The only problem is that they are missing a wife and mother. Then one morning eleven-year-old Tom wakes to find his father missing, too.
The Lanternist’s apprentice is thrown out of home, forced to work for the arch-criminal Jimmy Sacks, arrested and imprisoned. Will he ever be able to escape with his new friend Max and make the long, flea-bitten, rat-infested journey to Sydney in search of his parents?
The Lanternist is a story about stories, and how they show us a way through life, despite callous landladies, corrupt officials, criminal companions and the problems with living in incinerators. But mostly, it is about searching, and making your own endings.
Celebrated author Stephen Orr’s first foray into young adult literature is a thrilling historical adventure.
Tom Eliot and his father run a lantern show in Adelaide – but they are missing a wife and mother, so one day, Tom’s father, Bert, heads off to Sydney to find her, leaving Tom alone. When his father doesn’t return, Tom falls into the clutches of criminal Jimmy Sacks, and is arrested – before running away with Max, one of the young boys he meets whilst working for Jimmy. They make their way to Sydney and find their way through The Rocks – an area of poverty in those days to find Bert. Will they find Bert, Tom’s mother and clear Tom’s name?
The Lanternist begins with Tom’s arrest, and then heads back into the days and weeks leading up to Tom running off to Sydney, and what he endures – from theft to starvation and indifference from neighbours and those in society who are determined to ‘help’ Tom – but not in the way he needs. So Tom’s adventures begin, and we travel across Adelaide, and all the way to Sydney with him.
Stephen Orr’s first young adult novel has a fantastical and magical feel to it, yet no magic is present, apart from the magic of storytelling evoked by the work of the Lanternist and his son. Stephen Orr also gets the feelings of poverty, hunger and the world of uncertainty across to the reader, and the world that Tom lives in is deeply evocative and seeps into your skin and being, allowing you to become totally enraptured and enveloped within the time and place, worrying for Tom and hoping that he will find what he is looking for, and find a way to get out of trouble.
This intriguing and inventive book takes us back to the start of a Federated Australia in 1901, where class divisions are stark, and where children are often seen and not heard – where they are told what to do by all the adults they encounter. It presents this new Australia as indifferent to poverty and misfortune, as a place where assumptions can be made by certain people and others forced into situations that they do not have control over, and where deception and betrayal appear to be seen as a part of life and there is a sense that not much will be done about it based on what people assume.
This book enthralled me, and kept me captivated. It is a story that is unique and explores one person’s experience of the early 20th century in two Australian cities and what he endured that seemed to have echoes of Oliver Twist in some ways. It started off sedately and gently, and then suddenly rocketed us into the action, and took us through streets of Adelaide and Sydney on a quest to reunite a family and solve a crime. It is a wonderful book that has great ups and downs, and gets the balance of a calm story with something more active right, allowing space for the reader to breathe and get ready for the next exciting thing. The characters may physically move slowly – but given the setting, this is essential and works well – and explores themes of carnivals and performance, showing what people enjoyed during the early 20th Century for entertainment and the stark class division that was ever present throughout the novel. Young Adult readers will thoroughly enjoy this book, and I think will enjoy finding a new and different story to read than what they might be used to.