Strict rules of silence are imposed at "Sparrow Road" (Putnam, 256 pages, $16.99), the dilapidated mansion-turned-orphanage-turned-artist's retreat at the center of Sheila O'Connor's young adult debut. This tumble-down country estate -- with no phone, TV or computer connection -- is hardly a dream destination for 12-year-old Raine O'Rourke, but the silence does give her time to contemplate the many mysteries of a summer detour in this quietly affecting story.
Unanswered questions hang like cobwebs in the attic of the strangely melancholy mansion: Why would her mother have taken a temporary job as a cook a 10-hour train ride away from Grampa Mac in Milwaukee? What's with Viktor, Sparrow Road's chilly proprietor, whose cello music sounds "more like suffering than songs"? How about Lillian, the elderly poet rescued from the senior high-rise in St. Paul, whose memory loss can't quite conceal the secrets of the orphans who once lived here? And why is everyone so intent on keeping Raine safe from someone in the nearby town of Comfort -- a man who may not be a stranger after all?
"Diego said most daydreams started with a question, a wonder, a puzzle you couldn't solve. A blank space for the imagination to create," Raine explains, as she begins to imagine the lives of the orphans who once lived at Sparrow Road, and wonders at the blank space in her own family story where a missing father might be.
An artist compound with no other children in sight may seem an unusual setting for a young adult novel. But O'Connor, a longtime poet with the Writer-in-the-Schools program who teaches fiction in the MFA program at Hamline University, is at her best when she's showing how these artists reveal themselves to their young visitor. As they encourage Raine to discover her own creative voice, she imagines a boy named Lyman, who once lived in the orphanage's attic.
"Often if I asked a question, my orphan's story would get started. I closed my eyes and pictured his mop of thick brown hair, his chipped front tooth, the scar across his eyebrow. The more days I imagined him, the more alive he seemed to be. Real, the way people were in books." O'Connor's characters feel real, too, particularly Josie, a big-hearted quilter whose masterpiece of patchwork helps stitch together a few of the lost souls who find a summer home -- and a little healing -- at Sparrow Road.
Laura Billings is a writer in St. Paul.