Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Hotel Under the Sand

Written by Kage Baker

Tachyon Publications, 2009

$8, ages 9-12, 181 pages

Inspired by a true-life tragedy, this beguiling book about a 9-year-old girl marooned on an island and the magical hotel she salvages from the sand is a tribute to the power of the human spirit.

After a terrible storm steals away everything she's known, Emma washes up on an island where a centuries old hotel is buried and embarks on an incredible adventure to get it up and running again.

Though she's always been brave and clever, Emma never imagined she'd end up alone on an island to fend for herself and feel such loss. Then the ghost of an orphaned bell hop appears on the beach at night and Emma discovers that good things can still happen.

The ghost, who is not at all frightening, is that of Winston Oliver Courtland, a good-hearted bell captain who died when an Equinox storm buried The Grand Wenlocke hotel under sand. The Victorian hotel was built by the eccentric inventor Mr. Wenlocke, who figured out a way to make time last as long as patrons wanted it to.

Mr. Wenlocke's invention, the Difference Engine, stretched out time inside the fancy hotel, so vacations would never seem too short, and generated electricity from sand, sunlight and seawater without polluting the dunes outside. Instead of spewing smoke or ash, the engine produced clean water that was piped back into the hotel for use.

But just as the hotel was about to open, the Storm of the Equinox came out of a clear sky and sent up columns of sand a half-mile high, burying the hotel and catapulting Winston out of its front door to his death. Mr. Wenlocke and the rest of the staff went missing, and ever since, Winston's ghost has been waiting to return to the hotel.

After hearing Winston's frightening account, Emma realizes another sandstorm could come without warning and builds a fence with wreckage from the beach around her camp and unearths a deserted rowboat to sleep under. That night, just as she feared, a fierce sandstorm hits the beach, but Winston appears just in time to hold her ground.

When the winds finally die down, Emma and Winston lift the boat off their shoulders to find a magical sight, a five-story palace of turrets and verandas has risen from the sand. It is The Grand Wenlocke, looking exactly as it did the day it was buried. Apparently Emma's fence had deflected the wind just right to salvage the hotel.

At first Emma and Winston are unable to enter the hotel, as the Difference Engine is stuck, but once inside, they find a lushly decorated foyer with graceful settees and golden statues and discover that the hotel's kind cook Mrs. Beet and her dog Shorty have come back to life after being frozen in time with the hotel.

Together, Mrs. Beet and Winston agree that the hotel is rightfully Emma's since she is the one who salvaged it, but soon two other characters are staking claim. A salty sailor with a peg leg comes to the front door with a map to treasure hidden in the hotel and a haughty boy claiming to be the last descendant of Mr. Wenlocke crashes down outside in a flying apparatus.

In exchange for the treasure, the sailor Captain Doubloon agrees to tow The Grand Wenlocke with his ship to an island with firmer ground. They all know another sandstorm could bury the hotel as it had before. But suddenly a strange group of patrons are lining up to stay at the hotel and if they're not careful, Winston's spirit could be lost forever.

Baker's first children's book is an uplifting fantasy about rising above adversity. Emma is as sweet-natured and level-headed as Dorothy was in the Wizard of Oz. In the face of terrifying circumstances, she makes the most of what she has to work with and jumps headlong into an adventure that is as captivating as any child could dream of.

Baker, the author of the popular adult sci-fi series The Company, wrote the book for her 8-year-old niece Emma after she lost family in a terrible tragedy. Every week, Baker would mail off a chapter to comfort Emma in her grief and many of the details, including the pirate and the dog, were added because they were things Emma loved.

The island is modeled after the great Dunes north of Point Conception along the California coast, where the real Emma lived when she was very small. Dubbed "the graveyard of the Pacific," it has seen its share of shipwrecks and at the turn of the century was the site of a hotel that tipped on its side when a storm blew sand out from under it.

Revenues from the book go toward Emma's college fund.

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