The Mystery of Raspberry Hill comes to the UK with an impressive CV. Finnish writer Eve Frantz is an award-winning author of adult crime fiction and her debut novel for young readers has already won a prestigious prize in Finland. The translator, A.A. Prime, is similarly distinguished.
The novel’s opening sentence tells us that Stina, our 12-year-old narrator, expects to die soon. She is the third of six children, living with their mother in two rooms in a working-class district of Helsinki. Her soldier father was killed in combat. Money is always tight and life is a struggle, especially for Stina since she coughs and coughs, sometimes so hard her bedsheets are soaked in blood. She has tuberculosis.
Occasional passing references – Stina mentions her older sister wishes she had eyebrows like Clara Bow’s – suggest (at least to adult readers) that we’re in the 1920s. When the family’s doctor brings news that Raspberry Hill Sanatorium, deep in the countryside, is accepting city kids with bad coughs on a research project, Stina knows this might be her only chance of a cure. By now, we have seen that Stina is determined to make the most of what life she will have, including her first ride in a motor car on her journey to the sanatorium. Stina is quick and imaginative, perceptive about grown-ups and a keen reader.
Most of the small staff of nurses and doctors welcome Stina warmly as a valued participant in their project. When she realises she’s alone on the wards, she wonders whether she’s the only participant. Several other things don’t seem to add up. She writes frequently to her family, yet she never receives replies. Why are the staff so secretive about a recent fire in the East Wing? Who is Ruben, the seven-or-eight year old boy who appears – and disappears – in her room, full of laughter and chatter? When she searches for the ward where he says he sleeps, it doesn’t exist. Then when Stina wanders about the extensive grounds – fresh air is fundamental to her treatment – she meets a witchy old woman who asks if she’s poor or rich. When she says she’s poor, the woman urges Stina to run away as soon as possible, pointing out a nearby house where she’ll find help.
Subsequent events at the sanatorium raise issues which may give adults pause in offering this book to young readers. The head of the project is Dr Hagman and, in short, what he plans to do with Stina is to murder her on the operating table and transplant her heart to the benefit of a rich girl of a similar age. Some of the medical staff are party to his plans. Hagman’s ambition is to gain the wealth and reputation such a pioneering procedure would bring.
Yet it could be argued that the book’s ultimate message is one of hope since, having evaded the Doctor’s clutches, Stina determines to live life to the full until she is a hundred! Her escape from Hagman (who comes to an appropriately sticky end as he chases Stina across a frozen lake) crucially relies on the help of Ruben who, Stina finally learns, is the spirit of a previous patient-victim less fortunate than herself.
What criteria might you employ when deciding whether to offer this book to a young reader? My yardstick might be, “Would I share this with a child in my family/my class/my school library book group?” In this instance, I wouldn’t, while conceding that such decisions are strongly subjective and much depends on the prospective readers. My concern is that Hagman’s intentions might frighten a young reader, for whom hospitals, fatal illness and operations can be fearful enough without introducing murderous doctors; and also that, in terms of effective storytelling, I’m uneasy about the mix of domestic narrative, gentle comedy, savage horror and an interventional ghost.