Despite their difficulties the children are creative and imaginative. Together in their basement they invent a cardboard reconstruction of their hometown. Through a strange combination of mathematics and intuition, Mary, who may be borderline autistic or schizophrenic, directs the structure of the town with its clay characters who represent real-life people. Mary's two brothers discover an uncanny correspondence between the positioning of Mary's figures in her play construction and the precise geographical location of the townspeople as they go about their business. Much of the threesome's fun involves spying on the townsfolk using Mary’s vision map. As the game proceeds the children become more concentrated upon the board and how it manipulates itself without any aide from Mary. The children awake from their sleep with new revelations and clues about the town's underside, the mysteries that lie behind criminal events from simple peeking-tommery to murder.
The Shadow Year reads like Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird or Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury, not only in the children's precociousness but also in its semi-poetic style. I was impressed by the wisdom of the children's observations about adult life and its inauthenticity -- read hypocrisies. These apparently disadvantaged children prove to be exceptionally patient with their mother's alcoholism and their father's absence. They develop an empathic understanding of why their parents are the way they are; even though they would like Mom and Dad to be significantly different they unconditionally accept them. They are considerably less generous with their teachers and other authority figures whom they see as fumbling dolts. The Shadow Year is undoubtably a 'bildungsroman', a growing up story, in whose center lies the transformation of a child into a young adult. The reader is shown what is jeopardized in this maturing process, the harmony with and loyalty to those we love. As the threesome mature they differentiate from one another but their memories of playing the game together renews their individual characters as they move forward.
The Shadow Year is no mere commentary on development. It also includes the introduction of spiritual and metaphysical themes. Subtle influences for both good and evil are rife in this story. It is refreshing to see that the children, who while by no means religously orthodox, express gratitude and reliance on that which is beyond their senses. They learn to maintain trust in the unknown, overriding their nascent skepticism.
The Shadow Year resurrects our own shadow years. This is especially the case for those, like myself, who grew up in the 60's. The children alive during the time of Lyndon B. Johnson's presidency. The sights and sounds of that time permeate the book, all the way from Bazooka bubblegum with its inserted waxy comics to candy floss that transmutes from the texture of cobwebs to the disagreeable taste of blobs of pure sugar. While reading The Shadow Year the unused part of my reader’s mind went back to my own childhood with its sights and sounds, friendships and adventures that I thought I'd entirely forgotten. I wholeheartedly recommend this book as a way to return to the deep down things that form our character before it was obscured through our frantic quest for individuality and success. Ultimately, it is a book about community and how weakness can be used not only for survival but also as a means of recovering nobility.