Put this book on your shelf next to Jules Verne’s Journey To The Center of the Earth and Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. It is a marvelously written adventure, full of danger and discovery, set primarily beneath the teeming and oblivious streets of London. Tunnels abound, literally and figuratively.
Dr. Burrows, a slightly obsessed and aptly named archeologist, is the curator of a small museum in the small town of Highfield. He and his 14-yr-old son and assistant, Will, have conducted excavations in the town for many years, a recent one so promising it was nicked by a rival, and Dr. Burrows contribution reduced to a footnote. Efforts on a new dig are redoubled, only this time in secret from everyone, including family. This is not difficult: The tunnel atmosphere even pervades the Burrowses’ home where Mrs. Burrows, “surrounded by a slag heap of videotapes”, reclines in a room lit only by the shifting light of the constantly-on television while 12-year-old Rebecca shores up the edges, maintaining scrupulous, though perfunctory, standards of cleanliness and organisation, in every way the polar opposite of her brother.
When his father is preoccupied at his museum job, Will spends time on his own secret dig, helped by his new (and only) friend from school, Chester. There are no sunny skies and no cotton-puff clouds to alleviate the dirt, dust, and debris that happily absorb the two boys as they chip their way farther into the earth. Then, one day, Dr. Burrows disappears. The boys ransack the museum looking for clues about what had been occupying him recently. What they find leads Will to believe that finishing his tunnel may provide some answers and might even lead him to his father, but neither boy is prepared for the amazing and terrifying ordeal ahead.
However hard he tried, he just couldn’t shake off the overwhelming hollowness, and in the end he gave up any pretense of sleep, watching as the cold light of dawn began to lick around the edges of the curtains and finally stole into the room.
While reading this novel, found on the 3rd-6th grade shelf of my local bookstore, I mentally greeted words like “flummoxed”, “corrugations”, “vertiginous”, “clangorous”, “luminescent”, and “obsequious” with the same enjoyment Meg Ryan so perfectly demonstrated in that deli scene from “When Harry Met Sally”. Yes! Yes! YES! Make the little bugginses search through their dictionaries or type multi-syllabic words in search windows with their tiny fingers! Even if they aren’t inclined to look up unfamiliar words, at the very least they will have read them in context and will begin to form a sense of the definition for themselves. Introductions have been made and an appreciation for the variety in the English language fostered: Bright shiny word, meet buggins; buggins, meet bright shiny word. I think it’s the start of a beautiful friendship.