Figgs and Phantoms
Ellen Raskin
E.P. Dutton, 1974

Figgs and Phantoms is a YA novel dealing with death and coming of age. It is also hard to review without mild-to-moderate spoilers -- so there will be some. Nothing terrible, though.

Mona Lisa Figg is disenchanted with her family. Her parents' generation traveled the country putting on vaudeville shows, and while they have settled down they have not given up. Her mother tap daces constantly, usually in chorus with whatever class she is teaching in their living room. When she's not doing that, she's singing Gilbert and Sullivan duets with Lisa's father. Her favorite uncle is getting too old for dance, but he makes up for that by living in the old touring van, still painted like a side-show billboard. Her less favorite uncles, the human pretzel, the walking book of knowledge, and the talking adding machine, have managed to carry their oddities on into their mundane lives, making all of them frequent subjects of local gossip.

Mona doesn't do much to make her lot any better for herself -- she is sullen and larcenous, and refuses to get along with her family or the townsfolk. She only gets along with her uncle Florence Italia Figg, and only then because he lets her push him around. And then, halfway through the book, Florence dies.

Among their other oddities, the Figgs also have their own religion, the central tenet being that when you die you can go to a particular afterlife called Capri. Mona is convinced that Florence is in Capri, and is desperate to follow him there (no, not through suicide, although it is unclear what exactly she thinks that this journey will involve). And, through the magic of books (but even more through the magic of magic), she does follow him into Capri.

This is a quite odd book. Ellen Raskin is mostly known for her book The Westing Game, although she also has two other very good chapter books (and a good number of picture books with which I am not familiar). Figgs and Phantoms is very much the odd one out, missing Raskin's usually oddball adventures with an unusual amount of teenage angst. The mystical journey to the afterlife theme is also a major change for her. It's not bad, but it is not as well written as most of Raskin's books are, nor does it fit in with the mood of her other books. While it is enjoyable, it is the last of her chapter books that I would recommend.

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