“The play’s the thing” in Twelfth, Janet Key’s lively debut novel for middle-grade readers. It was not 12-year-old Maren Sands’ idea to attend Charlotte Goodman Theater Camp, but her parents insisted. They have their hands full caring for her older sister Hadley, who is in treatment for depression after dropping out of college.
Theater is Hadley’s dream, not Maren’s, and the camp, nestled in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, used to be Hadley’s place to shine. Clever, quiet Maren prefers life outside the spotlight. It only bothered her a little, growing up, to be perpetually stuck in Hadley’s shadow, but she was looking forward to things being different after her sister left home to study theater in New York. “It felt as if some part of her she had unknowingly been trying to keep small was finally able to stretch out,” she thought. Now, thanks to Hadley’s illness, she’s stuck in the middle of the woods with a bunch of theater kids she doesn’t know — and, as it turns out, possibly a ghost.
On her very first day, Maren is handed a mysterious note based on a quote from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, the play chosen for the camp’s finale performance: “In my stars I am above thee; but be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness THRUST upon them.” She has no idea what this means or why it was given to her, but she intends to find out, which is no easy task. As she solves one riddle, another takes its place — each related to Twelfth Night.
This unlikely treasure hunt leads Maren to the story of the camp’s namesake, Charlotte Goodman. In alternating chapters, Key presents Charlotte’s struggle to achieve her dream of being a movie director in 1940s Los Angeles. Adding even greater complications to an already unlikely career path is that Charlotte’s gender identity and her biological sex are not the same. Her grandmother calls her “unnatural,” and as she gets older, she begins to feel more comfortable dressed as a man. Consequently, she has many fears about herself: “It didn’t feel like she was seen. Maybe she never would be. Maybe there really was something about her, something wrong, something that made people’s gaze slide right past.”
But then, fear is in the air during Charlotte’s years in Hollywood, and so is danger. Her career begins during the time of the “Red Scare” — the persecution of those believed to have Communist sympathies — and it ends with the “Lavender Scare,” when homosexuals were suddenly barred from holding government jobs. Maren’s research reveals that Charlotte was mysteriously lost in a fire in 1953, just as she was completing her first film. Could the ghost of Charlotte Goodman be leading her to a diamond ring, also believed lost that night, that might save the financially unstable 60-year-old camp?
The cast of Twelfth is gender-diverse, including several same-sex couples and characters who identify as gender-nonconforming. In bonus material at the end of the novel, Key helpfully includes a conversation with a specialist on gender diversity who gives medically accurate and age-appropriate answers to questions such as the meaning of the terms “transgender,” “cisgender,” and “nonbinary.” Resources for further study on these topics are listed, along with ways to get help regarding LGBTQ issues. Information on depression and suicide prevention is included, as well.
As Maren dutifully attends her classes and helps with the play, she begins to feel more at home at Goodman, especially once she attracts new friends to help her solve the mystery. And when the professor of the playwriting class singles out her writing for special attention, she even starts to believe that her talents are worthy of recognition — completely apart from her sister. It soon becomes clear, however, that dangerous times are not confined to the past, and the camp’s own “midsummer madness” will require Maren to take desperate measures.
Tina Chambers has worked as a technical editor at an engineering firm and as an editorial assistant at Peachtree Publishers, where she worked on books by Erskine Caldwell, Will Campbell, and Ferrol Sams, to name a few. She lives in Chattanooga.