Pam Smy’s lovely hybrid novel tells the story (in words) of Mary and (in pictures) Ella – two girls separated by twenty-five years. Ella and her father have moved into a house that looks out onto Thornhill Institute which was “established in the 1830s as an orphanage for girls” and sold in 1982 “after the tragic death of one of the last residents, Mary Baines.” For the last twenty-five years, the house has remained vacant, although plans have been made to develop the site.
Through a series of diary entries, we meet Mary. She’s an odd, mostly silent girl who is virtually friendless. As Thornhill prepares to be fully de-commissioned, the few girls who remain are merely passing time, waiting for placement with a family. Mary’s chief tormenter has just returned from a situation which didn’t work out and Mary feels she must “lock myself away. Now that she’s back it is the only way I can keep myself safe.”
Up in her attic bedroom, she spends her time making puppets.
I often wonder what my life would be like without my puppets. …I love that I am surrounded by the things I have made. They sit on shelves above my bed, on my bookcase, suspended from the ceiling, balanced on my windowsill – my puppets are like friends that sit and keep me company..
In the present day, Ella spends much of her time alone, too. Her father, who clearly seems to love her, is away a lot. Her mother is presumably dead. Ella is curious about the house she can see from her bedroom window and the girl she sometimes glimpses in the overgrown garden behind the walls
One day, she manages to creep into Thornhill’s garden and she discovers a puppet head. As the days go on, she continues to see the girl in the garden and to discover more puppet pieces. She becomes more curious about Thornhill’s history and who the girl might be.
Smy makes great use of Mary’s diary entries to round out the story. Her story is particularly sad because there is no one in Mary’s life to take her side against the terrible bullying she endures. The adults in this story are either non-existent or ineffective. Her housemates are cruel and manipulative. Even though it’s obvious that her story isn’t going to end well, you can’t help but root for her.
As for Ella, the monochromatic pictures tell her story as beautifully as Mary’s diary. It will be impossible not to race through the pages to find out what happens.
Ultimately, Thornhill is a story of loneliness and friendship, and although there’s no happy ending, it’s a journey worth taking.